In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Farm Aid embarked upon a “podcast tour,” to spread the word about the issue of stress among farmers, ranchers and farmworkers, and how the Farm Aid Hotline and Farmer Resource Network helps. Farm Aid’s Hotline Program manager Caitlin Arnold Stephano and our Hotline Operators Lori Mercer and Elizabeth Gonzales Ibarra spent two days talking with ag podcasters and radio broadcasters about this crucial issue. As the podcasts and broadcasts are aired, we’ll share them here.
In recent years, a bright spotlight has been shined on the issues of stress and mental health in rural and farm communities. This increased attention has enabled an open and honest conversation about the ways that farmers, ranchers and farmworkers experience stress due to the nature of the work they do and the hurdles they face in receiving mental health support. It has opened the door to new funding, especially through the USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which has increased outreach, support and resources for farmers. The cultural ground is shifting, with more farmers and farm families coming forward to talk honestly about the challenge of farmer mental health. Farm Aid is so grateful to be part of these conversations and to help support farmers, ranchers and farmworkers through our work.
In general, rural residents have higher rates of depression, substance abuse and completed suicide. Farmers face additional challenges to maintaining their mental health. Mental health professionals point to the nature of farming as one likely cause — it is a business largely influenced by factors that are beyond farmers’ control, including weather, disease, pests, prices and interest rates, which can come and go without warning. Farmers can be isolated, geographically and socially, since they often work alone. They are self-reliant, independent and can be unlikely to ask for help. Many come from a tradition of not sharing their challenges, choosing instead to tough them out on their own. They work long, hard days and may deprioritize their own health and well-being to get the job done. Stress as a concept may often be seen by farmers as something that urban office dwellers experience, not something they feel. Farmers also may feel that their stress or mental health challenges are their own fault, and not as a reaction to the wider array of systemic issues that are beyond their control.
Barriers to Support
For those farmers who do seek support, finding the right fit can be a challenge. Farming itself is unique, and many clinicians don’t understand what it truly means to be a farmer in the U.S. today. Farmers cannot be advised to take a vacation or search for a less stressful job. Farmers feel a tremendous weight at the possible loss of their land or livestock, or the possibility that they could be the one to lose the family farm. Their role as a farmer is at the root of their identity; it’s their culture, not just a job.
Due to the nature of their work, farmers often lack health insurance coverage, or have minimal coverage that covers catastrophic injury only, rather than comprehensive care. If they do have insurance, behavioral health services may be considered “out of pocket.” As people who often keep their personal struggles to themselves, farmers worry about their privacy; it can be a challenge to seek care and maintain anonymity in small, rural communities.
To further complicate matters, farmers and rural Americans face barriers to accessing mental health care. Ninety million people live in designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the majority of those areas (61 percent in 2011) are in non-metropolitan areas. About 4,000 to 6,000 new mental health professionals are needed to fill that gap nationwide. A dramatic illustration of this shortage can be seen in the state of Iowa, where there are 123 psychiatrists, 122 nurse practitioners and 33 physician assistants that specialize in psychiatry, statewide. That equates to one trained professional for every 11,151 Iowans.
The Good News
The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which was created by the 2008 Farm Bill but was never funded. The re-authorization and allocation of $10 million in annual funding from 2019 – 2023 has enabled the FRSAN to provide grants to extension services and nonprofit organizations (including Farm Aid) that offer stress assistance programs to individuals engaged in farming, ranching and other agriculture-related occupations. Farm Aid is proud to support The Farmers First Act of 2023, introduced last week by Senator Tammy Baldwin, which would reauthorize the FRSAN through 2028. Four regional centers established through FRSAN (two of which Farm Aid is part of) are currently increasing access to farm stress services across the U.S. by coordinating efforts to serve the unique needs of the populations in each region. Funding for this critical program has supported the expansion of telephone helplines and hotlines; training programs to increase mental health literacy and stress management among agricultural producers and individuals engaged in other agricultural occupations; and support groups for farmworkers. Stay tuned for opportunities to support this important bill!
Post updated on July 17, 2023