Prioritizing mental health on the farm

May 3, 2022
Joy Kirkpatrick, a farm succession specialist with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of Extension, offers tips for managing mental health during the busy spring season.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and although it’s important to prioritize your well-being all year long, the busy spring season brings unique stressors for farmers and other ag professionals.

With springtime time pressures creating a high-stress working environment, research shows that there’s a high prevalence of depression and suicide among farmers, says Joy Kirkpatrick, a farm succession specialist with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of Extension. Knowing how to recognize the signs that you or someone you know might be struggling, and where to go for help, is critical.

Look for signs and symptoms

Signs that someone is dealing with mental health issues may be visible and there are symptoms people can recognize in themselves, says Kirkpatrick. However, mental distress can look different from person to person.

“When we think about signs, there’s usually some sort of behavior occurring, like skipping social functions they’d normally attend,” says Kirkpatrick. “Other signs to look for are fatigue or irritability. If a farmer notices that a neighbor or someone they’re close to isn’t quite himself or herself, that’s when they need to think about how they can reach out.”

Symptoms, on the other hand, are what someone feels inwardly. For example, mental distress could manifest as tightness in the chest, fatigue or nausea, says Kirkpatrick. “There are emotional and physical symptoms to look for. Someone might be easily angered, eat too much or too little, or feel depressed or tired all the time,” she notes.

Address the problem

If you suspect mental health issues in yourself, Kirkpatrick recommends seeing your primary care provider to make sure there isn’t a physical cause for any symptoms, stress or anxiety you’re experiencing. Left unaddressed, mental health issues can impact other areas of your farming operation.

“A chronic cycle of stress may affect a farmer’s ability to make decisions,” Kirkpatrick says. Other results of unmanaged stress can include poor communication with family members, employees or service providers, as well as compromised safety. “When you’re stressed, you might not keep up with safety practices or you become distracted, which makes accidents a greater probability. Keeping safety top-of-mind is really important.”

Stay healthy during busy times

Kirkpatrick shares ways to maintain your mental and physical well-being during the busy spring season.

  • Eat right. Don’t fuel yourself with soda and candy bars but instead try to eat regular healthy, balanced meals.
  • Exercise. Take a walk on your property without it being in conjunction with work to help reduce stress hormones.
  • Avoid unhealthy behaviors. Don’t rely on alcohol or other substances to de-stress.
  • Reach out to your support network. Your community can be a great asset to help deal with mental distress. Connect with friends, neighbors and family members when you’re feeling lonely or anxious.

For more information on mental health and well-being, visit the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center website (farmstress.org). The organization serves the 12 states in the North Central region of the U.S., with stress management and mental health resources and services for producers and stakeholders in each state.