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How communities can support mental health for farmers

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Long recognized as the "backbone of the nation," American farmers are an irreplaceable part of the local and global economy. They tend to the food, land and livestock that support and nourish our country and the world. 

Farmers and agricultural workers were also among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—a global crisis that introduced new constraints, such as supply chain and trade disruptions, among the already-present challenges farmers face every year.

This context may help explain why a recent systematic review paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that farmers have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide compared to the general population. The matter of mental health goes beyond the individual level, too: a farmer's mental and emotional well-being can impact the welfare of his or her family, farm and livestock. 

Fortunately, supporting local farmers is a community effort, and each of us can take part in it—whether we are part of a farming family ourselves or simply know some. Here are three examples of how community support can be leveraged to promote better mental health among farmers. 

1. Check in on farming neighbors

Farmers work long hours, rain or shine, weekdays and weekends, holidays included—an occupational necessity that people with non-agricultural careers don't usually face. And because they can be extremely busy, farmers are sometimes "out of sight, out of mind" to their neighbors. 

But a supportive community member can reach out to their farming neighbors more often, especially after things like severe weather incidents. Consider that a bad hailstorm may inconvenience most of us, but for farmers it can result in literally hundreds of thousands of dollars lost because of damage to crops, livestock, equipment and buildings.

Checking in on farming neighbors might look like: 

  • Offering to help with preparation for or clean-up after natural disasters
  • Bringing meals and hosting community potlucks during busy seasons 
  • Carpooling kids to and from extracurricular activities to ease some of the burden on farming parents

So, whether you're a farmer yourself or a neighbor of one, reach out. A simple phone call, text message, short visit or kind gesture can go a long way in helping local farmers feel less alone and stretched thin. 

2. Showcase farmers and their work

Farmers who see their hard work being recognized and appreciated by their neighbors may experience better mental health in addition to less financial strain. It's a great reason for community members to buy produce and meat from their own local farmers whenever possible—and to make it easier for others to do so, too, through opportunities like farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

Since strong social ties and connectedness are linked with good mental health, farmers should also feel encouraged to involve themselves in community events and institutions, such as job fairs, school boards and local governments.

In addition to supporting local farmers by showcasing their work, community members can also raise awareness about local resources for farming families. Examples include donating or volunteering for a local Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter, or sharing local and national resource directories with farming friends.

3. Learn about the warning signs of poor mental health in farmers 

Being able to recognize the signs of a mental health problem can encourage you to reach out and offer help to someone who might be in need. 

Like any individual experiencing mental health challenges, a farmer may exhibit common warning signs like decreased interest in enjoyable activities, social isolation and withdrawal, depressed or variable mood, feelings of guilt, anxiety or worthlessness, changes in sleep, weight, and appetite and misuse of drugs or alcohol. Neighbors and friends might also notice other signs, including: 

  • Decline in care of farmstead appearance and operations
  • Decline in care given to domestic animals and livestock 
  • Increase incidence of farming accidents

If you notice something, say something. Be prepared to listen and ask what you can do to help. Understand that some of the most common worries and concerns among farmers include financial issues, weather, fear of losing the farm and the state of the farming economy. Avoid minimizing or downplaying their concerns and instead offer to help them connect with resources and people who can help. 

Community members can also help farmers by not adding to any perceived stigma that a person who seeks help is weak. Recent survey data from the American Farm Bureau Federation shows that farmers and people in rural areas are becoming more comfortable talking with others about mental health, and that the stigma of seeking mental health treatment is decreasing. But it is still a barrier to care for some individuals. 

And while it may seem more socially acceptable in some communities to share a few rounds of drinks rather than seeking mental health treatment, discussing these concerns with a mental health professional can have a tremendous impact on a farmer's well-being. Let your farming loved ones know that it's okay, and even courageous and responsible, to ask for help. 

Your farm needs you at your best.  When you need help, SIU Medicine is here for you. 

The Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI) was created to provide Illinois farmers and their families with a unique compilation of resources to support their physical and mental health needs. Visit siumed.org/farm to learn more about FFRI.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, help is just a phone call away. Call or text the Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI) helpline at 1-833-FARM-SOS (833-327-6767) to speak with a counselor or learn more about resources that can help you and your family. 


Karen Leavitt Stallman
Ag Resource Specialist

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