By Leah Call
Farming is not for the weak – neither physically nor mentally.
But four straight years of declines in farm income combined with weather extremes and market uncertainty are pushing mental strength to the limit. That stress can lead to depression and contribute to other serious health issues. Fortunately, there are numerous resources throughout the Midwest to help farm families make it through these tough times.
“Farmers are very resilient. They are used to the highs and lows, but this has been too long of a stretch and too severe,” said Rhonda Strebel, executive director of the Rural Health Initiative (RHI).
RHI is a non-profit 501(c)3 in northeast Wisconsin, serving Shawano, Outagamie and Waupaca counties. “The financial stress is probably the worst we’ve seen since the farm crisis of the 1980s,” she said.
Strebel’s family farm didn’t survive that crisis. “I saw how devastating it was to both my parents, especially my father,” she said. “When I talk to my father about it now, he says there were three years of his life he can’t even recall – it was so stressful. He felt like he needed someone to talk to and there was no one.”
Strebel made it her life’s calling to be that someone. She and others in the Rural Health Initiative bring services directly to farmers with what she calls “Kitchen Wellness.”
“We sit down at the kitchen table and the first thing we have them do is fill out a health assessment,” Strebel said. “That deals with health behaviors as far as eating, exercise, smoking, drinking – the behaviors we can manage. But there are also questions related to stress and depression.”
Farm families often lack the time and financial resources to practice routine preventative care. By bringing the services to the farm, health professionals check blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. They also check to see how stress levels are affecting well-being.
“We are not there to fix all their problems,” Strebel said. “We are there to detect what is going on and then to refer them to whatever services they may need.”
A resource Strebel frequently recommends is the Wisconsin Farm Center. The center’s counseling program — Sowing the Seeds of Hope — offers vouchers that can be used to access mental health counselors and other health providers. Sowing the Seeds of Hope is a farm-focused initiative providing behavior health services in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Strebel encourages farmers strained by the current financial situation to reach out.
“Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone,” she said. “You’ll find that you are not alone and you will make it through this.”
Charlotte Halverson, network clinical director for Agrisafe, agrees with Strebel about the importance of reaching out for support.
Agrisafe is a non-profit national organization focused on training rural health care providers to maximize the health and safety of farmers.
Halverson feels it’s important for those suffering stress and depression to share their feelings with family members.
“It’s best for the family if they know what is going on, especially if you have kids or teens. If you don’t talk to them, they will think it is their fault,” she said.
Halerson said it is a stressful time for farmers. Watch for signs that the stress has progressed to the next level. If you notice a family member or a neighboring farmer feeling anxious and upset, or with restlessness and irritability that last for more than two weeks, they are likely suffering anxiety, Halvorson said.
When anxiety turns to depression, they may become less engaged and sleep more. Talk of feeling worthless and overuse of alcohol and drugs is a sure sign that it’s time to consult a mental health professional.
“I tell people if you have someone in your family who has arthritis or diabetes, you would make sure they go to the doctor,” Halverson said. “Depression is very much a clinical issue, it just happens to be in your brain instead of your stomach or your foot, or somewhere else.”
Call for help
In 2018, farmers had the highest rate of suicide of any profession, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Don’t be afraid to reach out and call for help.
• Iowa Concern: (800) 447-1985
• Michigan Crisis Hotline: (734) 936-5300
• Minnesota Crisis Connection: (866) 379-6363
• Wisconsin Farm Center: (800) 942-2474
Coping with stress
Here are some positive strategies to cope with stress:
• Find ways to relax
• Read, watch TV, watch a movie or eat out
• Go for a walk, try yoga or go swimming at the YMCA
• Don’t shy away from socialization
• Monitor your alcohol and caffeine use
• Practice deep breathing
• Get proper nutrition
• Get enough sleep. Start a sleep routine, if necessary.