Local officials want farmers and agricultural workers to know they aren’t alone when it comes to taking care of mental health.
Farmers may face challenges in the agricultural industry — weather and trade uncertainties, long hours, economic hardship and isolation — which can all have an impact on mental health.
According to a University of Iowa study on agricultural occupations released in 2014, rates of homicide are lower among agricultural populations compared to other occupations but rates of suicide are higher. The study covered 1992-2010.
A typical victim of suicide, according to the study, was white, male, over the age of 35, self-employed with less than 10 employees and was located in a farm building. Sixty-five percent of suicide victims were self-employed, according to the study.
Farming is an identity and way of life for farm families, the study states. The primary responsibility of men on farms is usually agricultural production, while women oversee the household, children, vegetable garden, errands and administrative work, according to the study.
“Family farmers enjoy being their own boss, cultivating the land, working together with family members, and contributing in a meaningful way to the world,” the study states. “However, these advantages are also potential stressors, including personal responsibility for the financial success or failure of the family business.”
With all of this in mind, the Ohio Department of Agriculture is working with local farm bureaus and mental health officials to raise awareness of the issue and the “Got Your Back Campaign.”
The campaign aims to let farmers know there are places to reach out for help when job stress starts to cause physical and emotional burdens, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture website. The campaign offers resources for stress management for men, women, teens and young adults and crisis help.
Mandy Orahood, an Ohio Farm Bureau organization director serving Ashtabula County, said there is a correlation between agricultural occupations and suicide and stress-related diseases such as heart disease.
Farmers often work very long hours and find themselves sleep-deprived, Orahood said. They may also often find themselves in isolated areas and secluded from other people, she said, which can result in depression deepening more than it already is from industry-related stressors.
“We’re really focusing on the stress and the mental health of those in agriculture from the weather, all the trade issues and consumer demand,” Orahood said.
Matt Butler, clinical supervisor of Community Counseling Center, said farming is indeed an uncertain industry and one that has many variations from growing season to season. Farmers or family of farmers come through the counseling center, he said.
“We’re a rural community,” Butler said. “The issues that those in agriculture face are issues that Ashtabula County faces as a whole.”
Last year the Ashtabula County Grange reached out to the Community Counseling Center to talk at a meeting about problems that exists and mental health resources available.
Farming in general is more difficult today than in years past, Butler said, especially for family farmers who find themselves competing against large corporate farms, which own so much of the land.
Many professions have elevated risks of suicide, Butler said. Not enough attention is placed on farming and agriculture because it is an industry that is often out of site to the general population, Butler said.
“I don’t think enough people think of agriculture as being one of those high-stress professions, but it absolutely is,” Butler said.
It’s not that farmers have a tendency toward mental illness, it’s just the nature of the work can lead to depression. Farm communities were once full of resiliency with strong family units and community support working the land for generations, Butler said.
“As more and more people turn away from farming it becomes a more isolated profession and there is less support farmer-to-farmer because there are fewer of them doing it,” Butler said. “There may also be fewer people that understand their day-to-day experience. That tends to be isolating as well.”
Farmers also tend to be people who avoid reaching out and having conversations about mental health, Butler said. Yet Butler said having conversations and talking about things, whether it is a farmer reaching out or someone reaching out to a farmer, are essential in combatting depression.
“When it comes to farming communities there is a lot of rugged individualism because you have to be able to support your family and community,” Butler said. “You have to be able to keep your animals alive and your crops growing.”
Miriam Walton, executive director of the Ashtabula County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, said members of the Ashtabula County Prevention Coalition are partnering with the Department of Agriculture on the Got Your Back campaign locally.
While Walton said suicide is certainly something those struggling with issues of depression or work stress need to be aware of. Like Orahood, Walton said depression can also lead to people sleeping less or abusing drugs and alcohol which can result in workplace injuries or death.
“The prevention coalition has been working closely with the (Department of Agriculture) to figure out what that campaign looks like and what we can best do to support them,” Walton said. “Because we have so many farms and so much rural space I think it’s important that we pay attention to this.”
Jon Wysochanski writes for The (Ashtabula, Ohio) Star Beacon, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by CNHI.