Focus on Mental Health: Find Support in Tough Times

This is the third in a five-part series on mental health in agriculture.

Mental health on the farm has been a big concern for some time now, even more so with the COVID-19 outbreak. Dr. Michael Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and a farmer in western Iowa. He also founded a non-profit group called AgriWellness, Incorporated, which promotes accessible behavioral health services in rural areas. He says the COVID-19 outbreak could actually wind up being harder on agriculture than the recent challenges that included trade wars and weather disasters.

“Farmers that I’ve been talking to always say that COVID is now becoming one of their major stressors they worry about, how it’s going to affect markets, whether it will infect someone in their household, there’s just so much uncertainty. And, if you listen to the news reports, you can’t come away with a consistent message, so you don’t know what to believe.”

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on agriculture will not be positive.

“Every agricultural producer is now facing more uncertainty; whether they will earn sufficient income from their own sales of products or with supplemental payments, enough income to overcome the expenses they invested in their crops or livestock, or whatever they’re producing. That’s always been an issue, but now it’s much harder to predict whether you’re going to have the necessary income, so I think we’re going to see another round of bankruptcies, I think we’ll see lots of foreclosures, I think it terms of psychological stress, it’s going to create tremendous anxiety.”

He says the current level of anxiety will likely lead to serious depression and, in some cases, possibly “self-harm.” There are many signs that could signal someone has reached a breaking point in dealing with the uncertainty and stress.

“Detachment from social or coming out into a community, becoming very isolated is a signal. Another one is a person with very flat affect. That is, if you ask, ‘when’s the last time you laughed,’ they say, ‘I can’t remember,’ and it’s been several weeks and they’ve not had a good belly laugh, that’s a sign of emerging depression. Another indicator is feelings of hopelessness, or ‘everything that I do comes up for no good.’ Those kinds of hopeless proclamations are a pretty good indicator that this person is considering some other options that are more damaging.”

Rosmann says another sign to watch for is a producer getting the urge to cry, something farmers typically don’t do. Not sleeping is another sure sign that stress is taking control. What’s the best way to encourage producers who are under stress to open up and share what’s on their minds.

“By being available to listen and say, ‘tell me how things have been going for you lately.’ Sometimes we may even have to open up the conversation by doing a little bit of self-revelation, such as ‘just wanted to stop over and see how you’re doing because I’m going through kind of a rough time myself and I just wanted to see what you’re doing to cope,’ and enter into that kind of discussion. People will open up to others when they know they can be trusted to share something confidential.”

It’s important for every farmer to find a solid support base, no matter which people make up that base. There are a lot of resources available for farmers who need help coping with the stress.

“Quite a number of states have farm-crisis hotlines and helplines. For instance, Iowa has the Iowa Concerned Hotline, Nebraska has the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, FarmAid is another good resource because it’s answered by people who do have familiarity with farming. The National Suicide Hotline is a last resort but that’s certainly useful as well. I would do an online search for farm crisis telephone hotlines and see what’s available in the state where you live.”

Rosmann says there will be even more farm crisis services coming in the near future due to the farm and ranch stress assistance network legislation that was passed as part of the 2018 Farm Bill.