How research and outreach are improving mental health management for farmers

(BPT) - It's no secret that farming is a physically demanding job, but the mental and emotional toll of the profession is often stigmatized or ignored. Fortunately, the mental health impact of running a farm is being increasingly studied and, as a result, better understood.

For example, Josie Rudolphi, Ph.D. - an assistant professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois and co-director of the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center - researches farm stress and mental health, agricultural safety and health and child agricultural injury prevention.

"We know that farmers experience really unique work-related stressors," said Rudolphi. "These include the unpredictable nature of commodity prices and environmental conditions, which can tremendously impact their bottom line."

According to Rudolphi, farm finances are a leading source of stress, regardless of what's happening in the economy, and research shows financial and environmental stress are associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Perhaps this is why the number of people in the agricultural community who experience clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression exceeds those who experience similar symptoms in society at large.

A survey by Rudolphi and her team found that nearly 60% of young farmers met the criteria for depression, and even more met the criteria for anxiety. For the general population, it's closer to 20%-30%. Given the prevalence of these mental health struggles, it's critical that farmers have access to mental health care.

Barriers to care

Farmers seeking access to mental health care run into many barriers to care, one of which is simply finding services. In many places in rural America, there aren't enough providers to meet the community's mental health care needs.

Another challenge farm families face is cost. Because most farmers are independent producers who may operate on very thin margins, mental health care is often considered a luxury or an unnecessary expense.

While the lack of mental health resources and the ability to afford them may be discouraging, raising awareness of mental health issues in farming communities is crucial for removing barriers to care.

Recognize the signs of mental health issues

When communities know the signs of mental health issues, it can help decrease the stigma for those dealing with these struggles. For example, a change in behavior is one of the main warning signs of anxiety and depression.

"When people begin to behave differently, for whatever reason, it's important to understand why," said David Merrell, M.D., a regional physician with Syngenta Health Services and the on-site medical doctor for Syngenta in Greensboro, North Carolina. "Don't wait. If you see a behavioral change, raise the question."

Approaching someone experiencing behaviors outside of the norm gives them an opening to talk about their emotional health, stresses and worries. When approaching people struggling with mental health issues, patience is important. On average, people experiencing mental health issues take more than 10 years to speak up. That can be especially true for the rural community.

"Farmers and farm families are typically very self-reliant and can be reluctant to seek help," said Merrell. "Recognize that everything is therapy. Hobbies, self-reflection and sharing your concerns with others are all forms of therapy. The question is, what kind of therapy do you want? Engaging a mental health professional can provide access to a better, higher quality of care."

Help is here

To address the lack of mental health resources for farmers, the USDA has funded four regional farm and ranch assistance networks. They are:

Each network has a dedicated website and links to mental health resources and support for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers. This regional approach is important to meeting the unique needs of each farming community. For example, in the North Central region, Rudolphi and her team are working to deliver mental health literacy programs for agricultural producers and those who work with them, including bankers, retailers, seed dealers and others who know farmers professionally and personally.

"We are training these people to be mental health allies," said Rudolphi. "That includes when it's necessary to intervene and how to talk about mental health. We still see stigmatization around mental health in these communities, but I think that's starting to change. Hopefully, through education, increased awareness and shifting attitudes, farmers and their families will be encouraged and empowered to take the steps necessary to enhance their emotional well-being."

To learn more, visit

Leave a Comment