“Just buck up,” “cowboy up” or “tough it out” are not adequate soundbites to help us deal with the stresses of agriculture. Based on the article title, I’ll bet if someone is “watching” you read this article, you’ll turn the page and pretend you’re not interested. (I figure 10-to-1 odds.) But I’d also bet you’ll read every word if you feel you can do that privately. The stigma surrounding mental health is just so real. I can’t change that. But I hope with better education and more research people are beginning to understand some of the causes and issues the industry faces. Lance Hansen (University of Idaho Extension – Madison County) and Bracken Henderson (University of Idaho Extension – Franklin County) presented a seminar at the Tri-State Grain Producers’ Convention in Spokane on this issue.
What does ag stress look like? In 2016, 417 farmers and farmworkers died from a work-related injury (21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers). Opioids are a top concern among rural areas, and three of four farmers say it would be easy to access opioids. Suicide rates are reportedly significant in rural communities where agriculture occurs. Now let’s compound the problem with the fact that rural communities often have inadequate medical presence. But we haven’t even talked about the drought yet, or fertilizer prices or land values skyrocketing or labor shortages or any of the ongoing critical issues of the day, or even whether you got corn seed ordered on time.
And then there’s the big one, Hansen said – the agrarian imperative, which sentiment is (loosely explained): “I have to hold onto the family farm, no matter the cost.” Who isn’t proud to say, “We’re the fifth-generation farmers (or ranchers), and we just want to give our kids the same opportunities”? Commitment to farming or ranching is one thing, but the commitment to a specific GPS coordinate as the only place on the planet that will qualify success is a lot of pressure. You don’t want to let the ancestors down.
But there’s good stress, right?
There’s good stress and bad stress. Harvest is obviously going to be a stress – but generally good stress, the kind of stress that motivates us to get it done. But even good stress can build and pile up until it becomes toxic. Your mind might know the difference, but your heart rate will react the same.
Identifying the symptoms
As stress aggregates in our bodies (a chemical buildup), we can experience one or several symptoms. Headaches are common, insomnia or weight gain (because we’re trying to eat our way through it). Maybe you experience heart racing or nausea. Maybe you get cross and yell more or make poor decisions. Maybe stomachaches become common. Pay attention, Hansen said – your body will tell you when the stress is building.
Focus. When you realize the chemicals in your body are signaling to you a stress response, it becomes necessary to focus on what is real and what is not. For instance, one response to a hay rake taking out a corner post would be, “Well, that kid never does anything right, and he doesn’t listen” or else it can be, “I’m tired, I haven’t eaten well today, and I’ll be another two hours untangling this mess,” so it’s really not as much about the kid as it is about what you’re dealing with.
Use self-talk. This is not motivational mumbo-jumbo. You don’t have to use “cheerleading” thoughts or super-positive affirmation. But you also need to not dwell on the graying hair or getting older, or whatever thoughts you pile on. It’s helpful to reconnect with your purpose, stay centered, don’t get caught in the thick of thin things. Remind your brain to retrigger the chemical signal that will send more positive messages or quit sending negatives ones. Choose positivity.
Calm your thinking. What does this look like? Well, oxygen is pretty important to your brain, so as hokey as it sounds – breathe. Take a breath or four, or 24 hours’ worth of breaths, before you respond to a stress. When you’re upset, you’re not thinking clearly, and you are going to make it worse unless you pause for a moment to catch your breath and send more oxygen to your brain.
Change your approach. You and I can’t change the weather, even with deep breathing. If you can’t control the stress, then don’t worry about it. Change your attitude and work on something you can change.
External coping factors
You (and all your fellow readers) experience some common stress: weather, large debt loads, government regulations, machinery breakdowns, high interest rates, low crop yields, livestock illness, commodity prices, disagreements with family members. But there are some you can minimize or prepare for, so the stress is tolerable and not toxic. Here are some ways to prepare.
Learn to communicate. You think you do it well – but you don’t. You don’t let people clearly know what you’re thinking. You assume people already know what you do.
Chemical imbalances are real, and they can be somewhat subtle. You may think someone is just “cranky by nature” (and maybe they are pessimistic for some reason), but you might also find that individual could have a chemical imbalance that affects mood – makes him negative all the time or always looking for a fight. And they’re not bad people; they just miss a lot of the joy in life, Henderson said.
The good news is: Chemical imbalances are treatable under a doctor’s care. They can also be situational – maybe some depression sets in after a health crisis, after a life-changing event such as divorce or death. But sometimes we need external help to cope with those things. And that’s OK. There are doctors and support groups already set up to help.
Suicide and signs
With increased chronic stress that ag producers experience, the suicide rate for farmers and ranchers is higher than it is in the general population – six times higher.
Suicide doesn’t just happen all at once. No one wakes up one day and thinks, “Hey, I’m gonna do this today,” Henderson said. Suicides have warning signs and patterns to them. These include:
- Talking or writing about suicide or death
- Feeling hopeless, trapped or like a burden
- Giving away prized possessions
- Making a plan, acquiring means
- Saying goodbyes
- Isolating from others
- Loss of interest
- Mood change
You might notice the guy who comes to coffee once a week is maybe staying away, or maybe the farm is not looking as kept up as it used to be, or maybe a usually friendly guy is a little brusque. Check up on them. We need to watch out for each other.
Where does Idaho rate?
A poll taken by Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program conducted an ag producer survey to refine assistance efforts. While Idaho-specific results are not available, the dataset from several surrounding states provides valuable insight. Top stressors for Oregon producers included lack of time (50%), workload (42%), legislative issues related to agriculture (40%), COVID-19 stress (40%), production costs (38%), family succession (38%) and technology, family, work/family balance and commodity prices (all at 37%).
To alleviate stress, one-third of the producers said learning more about these five things would help them manage or cope with their stress: financial, succession planning, retirement planning, sleep and nutrition. Each state varied somewhat in rankings of stressors, but patterns tended to develop across states.
Suicide Prevention Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255 or text the word “HOME” to 741741.
Also visit farmstress.us for more resources.
Bracken Henderson, email@example.com
Lance Hansen, firstname.lastname@example.org