Farm families are under increased stress this season, challenged by weather, trade issues, the farm economy and many other factors that are out of their control. Stress impacts our bodies in many ways and can result in symptoms such as increased aches and pains, changes in appetite, lack of sleep, anxious or racing thoughts, moodiness and social isolation. Increased stress is becoming chronic and has taken a toll on farmers, resulting in mental health concerns. This increase in depression among farmers and ranchers is troubling.
Recent research studies have shown that the prevalence of depressive symptoms in farmers and ranchers ranges from 6% to 35%. Additionally, suicide among farmers and ranchers is a national concern. With the increased chronic stress that agricultural producers are experiencing, the suicide rate among farmers and ranchers is higher than the general population.
Whether you are a member of a farm family or not, these statistics should concern all of us.
Agriculture is the bedrock of our economy, and we depend on farmers for our daily needs such as food, clothing and fuel. Currently, many farmers are in jeopardy of losing their family farms, some of which have been passed down from one generation to the next. Their farm is their passion, livelihood and legacy, so to have to sell it means losing everything.
Many of us, when we experience sadness or pain during difficult times, tend to isolate ourselves. Maybe we stop going to social events, participating in a hobby or talking to friends or family. These behaviors are red flags for concern. In addition to choosing to withdraw socially, farmers and ranchers in rural areas are geographically isolated, which limits their ability to reach out to others who could help.
Farm stress is real, and during these difficult times, social support can be helpful in alleviating symptoms of depression. Farmers and ranchers may be family members, friends, neighbors or acquaintances. Regardless of your relationship with them, reach out to offer your support. Don’t just assume they are okay and will reach out to you to talk; farmers tend to wait to seek help until symptoms are extreme and a disruption to their work. Some never ask for help and suffer alone with symptoms or battle suicidal thoughts daily. By asking how they are doing and initiating the conversation, you open the door for communication and connection. It could make all the difference in the world.
Andrea Bjornestad is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling & Human Development at South Dakota University.