How can farmers tackle mental health challenges?

May 4, 2021
Tara Haskins, DNP, RN, director of Total Farmer Health at AgriSafe Network, shares ways to recognize mental health issues, which can take a toll on farmers, their families and their businesses.

“Mental health is vital to overall farmer health,” says Tara Haskins, DNP, RN, director of Total Farmer Health at AgriSafe Network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for occupational health services for the ag community.

“Productivity in agriculture requires both a sound mind and body. When one or both are not functioning fully, businesses, employees and family members can suffer.”

It’s not easy to deal with the emotional stresses in agriculture, Haskins acknowledges. That’s why knowing how to recognize mental health issues and where to get help are so important. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

What to look for

Here are signs that people can watch for in a loved one or themselves that could indicate they’re struggling, however, mental distress can look very different from person to person, says Haskins. Common things to look for include constant worry, inability to sleep and change in appetite, which could result in weight loss. Irritability is very common, particularly in men, when they are anxious or depressed.

“If someone looks tired, angers easily, avoids conversation or isolates themselves, that could indicate anxiety or depression. A change in appearance could also occur because, over time, self-care can start failing,” says Haskins. “It’s also important to remember that people can start talking about their regrets or failures — and some of their conversations may give you hints they are feeling hopeless or even suicidal.

“If someone says things like, ‘I’m a burden,’ or ‘I’m a failure,’ or ‘I’m cashing in,’ those phrases may indicate a serious risk,” says Haskins.

Being mentally distressed can also make people unsure, indecisive, distracted and disorganized, which can be particularly concerning for farmers.

“Farm production can start to reflect the same feeling a producer is experiencing,” says Haskins. “For example, the farm may have deteriorated, the equipment may be in disrepair or there could be an increase in injuries on the operation. Additionally, chronic fatigue can lead to caffeine, alcohol or drug abuse in an effort to calm anxiety or numb uncomfortable feelings. Over time, those short-term coping strategies can become long-term problems.”

When to get help

If worry, anxiety or changes in mood are affecting your ability to function most days of the week for at least two weeks or more, consider seeking help, Haskins advises.

“Mental stress and distress leave very little room in your brain to recognize how severely they are affecting you, making it difficult to come up with possible solutions.”

“Resistance to seeking help is common. I often ask people who are hesitant to get help, ‘If this were happening to someone you cared about, what would you tell them?’ And nine times out of 10 they’ll say, ‘I’d tell them they need to get help.’ My answer back to them is, ‘If that answer is good enough for someone you care about, then isn’t it good enough for you?’”

Available resources

Seeking guidance from a professional is a step in the right direction, says Haskins. “That person could be a spiritual leader or a local health care provider or counselor. They have resources, skill sets and referral mechanisms to help people get the support they need.”

AgriSafe recommends three resources for anyone dealing with mental health issues.

  1. National Library of Medicine (NLM). This website offers evidence- and research-based information. MedlinePlus, a service of NLM, also has information regarding specific mental disorders and medications.
  2. AgriSafe mental health programming. AgriSafe has information and resources for agricultural producers, including what poor mental health looks like, why people should seek help early if they’re experiencing mental distress and how they can organize information to share with their health care providers.
  3. Local health care providers. These professionals can help identify services in your area and may have resources for telecounseling or teletherapy. You should always contact your health insurance company to find out what your plan covers. Your insurer should also be able to direct you to the providers in your plan network.