Farming is one of the most stressful jobs in America. Farmers often live where they work, and their coworker(s) are their spouse and or other family members. Many farmers work alone. Farmers may have the advantage of being their own boss, but the reality is that they control very little. Many factors affect farming. Price and market uncertainty, machinery, labor, animal or plant diseases, production challenges, weather and even consumer opinions are outside a farmer’s control. These factors can negatively affect a farmer’s mental, physical and emotional health.
A 2016 study showed that people involved in agriculture have the highest overall suicide rate compared with other occupational groups. The suicide rate among farmers is 60 percent higher than that of other occupational groups.
Let that sink in. The suicide rate among farmers — the people who grow and supply our nation’s (and many others’) food supply is 60 percent higher than the suicide rate of other occupational groups.
For many in agriculture, farming or ranching is not just a job; it’s their way of life. The family operation has been in existence for multiple generations. With a downturn in the farm economy and environmental catastrophes that have hit parts of rural America in recent years, farms are experiencing increased financial stress and going out of business. Because farming/ranching has become a way of life, the threat of losing a generational legacy is a large burden for farmers to carry. Many have no concept of what they can do outside the farm. Threat to or loss of the family farm or ranch often produces multiple stress-related manifestations, which can lead to depression.
What can we do? Be prepared. Keep an open eye for warning signs of stress. These vary among individuals, and their demeanor, words and behavior should be considered in context of what is normal for them.
Common warning signs of stress include: Ongoing changes in emotion; little enthusiasm for the future; loss of humor; depression or anxiety; changes in attitude and cognitive skills; becoming excessively critical or agitated over small things; trouble making decisions; becoming excessively hopeless; changes to routine behavior and/or appearance, including being quieter than usual; difficulty sleeping, withdrawal and isolation; missing meetings; alcohol abuse; feelings of guilt; changes on the farm and ranch; reduced care given to farm/ranch tasks; increase in accidents.
Provide support and help to farmers who are going through extreme stress. Practice active listening. Listen with your eyes and ears while encouraging the person to reveal more about their thoughts and feelings when they’re willing to share. Use words that affirm the concerns they are expressing and ask what they are doing to cope. Ask what you can do to support them or how you can help. Show empathy rather than sympathy. In most cases, sympathy is not helpful to the person receiving it, but when we make a sincere effort to understand what the other person is going through and offer constructive ideas to address the challenges they are facing, we are showing empathy. Empathy can go a long way to helping farmers realize they are not alone in facing challenges.
Follow-up is extremely important when dealing with a person in stress for the specific purpose of helping him or her through a crisis. After meeting with a farmer under stress, make the commitment to stay in dialogue, whether you said you’d follow up or not.
Kelsey Nordyke, MS, is the Cowley County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources. She an be reached at (620) 221-5450 or (620) 441-4565.