Focus on Mental Health: HERD Stress Management Strategy

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

It wasn’t long ago that trade wars, weather disasters, and low commodity prices were the biggest concerns for agriculture. Along comes COVID-19 and all the challenges it brings, which puts farmers stress levels higher than ever. Dr. Josie Rudolphi of the University of Illinois advocates for the HERD stress management strategy. She says farmer stress levels have done nothing but climb over the past six weeks.

“We do know that they are experiencing even more stress, which we didn’t think was quite possible. Spring is already a stressful period, so we compound that with the COVID-19 pandemic and that creates health concerns, and then it certainly creates additional concerns because of what we see happening to markets. Traditional markets are no longer available for product, so people either have to move that product or dispose of that product, which is creating a ton of anxiety and stressors for farmers, so it’s stacking up to be a really challenging spring.”

HERD is an acronym that brings together positive ways of managing stress. HERD stands for Hobbies, Exercise, Rest, and Diversion. Some of these strategies may be more appropriate than others for different individuals because everyone copes differently with stress.

“We think about hobbies and there’s a lot of scientific evidence that shows doing something for pleasure, even two hours a week can have tremendous mental health impacts because it’s a creative outlet that’s different from our jobs, and we know on farms it’s thinks like wood working, metal working, and maybe restoring farm equipment. Exercise obviously has physical benefits, but it also has tremendous mental benefits. As little as 20 minutes a day of exercise, and all that really means is it doesn’t have to be arduous, it doesn’t have to be intense, it just means getting your heart rate above resting. Relaxation, maybe it seems like a no-brainer, but thinking about ways to truly try and decompress. It gets to be a challenge on the farm, we feel like there’s always something to do, there’s always something to be worrying about, but finding ways to relax and get away from the work. A diversion is really just a way of distracting your brain and stopping what might be either a series of negative self-talk, or maybe a thought spiral. For example, if you find yourself getting really overwhelmed thinking about farm finances or succession planning, I always recommend to take 20 minutes and do something else, change your task or change what’s in front of you.”

Rudolphi talks about the signs of stress that family and friends should be watching out for, including physical, emotional, and behavioral changes.

“So, we watch for physical changes; are they sleeping a lot more or a lot less than usual? Are they eating a lot more or a lot less? Are they experiencing chronic backache or headaches, racing heart rates or nausea? We think about behavioral changes, which are changes in our day-to-day patterns, such as changes in how we eat, drink, Changes in what we take interest in, changes in the way we work and whether we start neglecting certain pieces of our work and ourselves. Changes in our emotions are the easiest to notice, so it’s something displaying symptoms of depression, perhaps being really uninterested in the things they used to enjoy, or becoming easily irritable, agitated, irritable, or angry.

She says there are resources available for farmers and their families who need help coping with the mountains of stress currently hitting agriculture hard.

“We have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We have a number that are more regional. In the Midwest, we have the Iowa Concern Hotline. Minnesota has one specific for farm finances and one’s more specific for a mental health experience or crisis. There are other options as well. If you feel that you truly need or would like mental health care, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore that. A good place to start is your primary care physician. They’re going to be able to triage the situation and help you navigate the resources that are available in your insurance system. And, I would encourage people to reach out to someone they can truly trust, so whether that’s a spouse, a close friend, and maybe it’s a community member like a pastor or a mentor.”

Farmers tend to be independent and self-reliant in nature. Rudolphi says asking for help does not mean you’re a weak person at all.

“No, absolutely not. I really like to equate it to if our livestock were sick, we are not all veterinarians and we wouldn’t think twice about enlisting the help of a professional. If we notice what seems to be a pest in the field, we wouldn’t think twice about enlisting the help of an agronomist because we want the best possible outcome for our farm. I think we need to think of ourselves in that same way.”