When it comes to mental health in the farming community, the go-to mentality has long seemed to be to just try to pull through, according to Melissa Ploeckelman, outreach specialist with the National Farm Medicine Center.
“There is a huge stigma around mental health with farmers,” Ploeckelman said.
But it has become increasingly apparent that the traditional mindset of handling mental health issues doesn’t work, Ploeckelman said. That’s why efforts at reducing the stigma around mental health, which have seen progress made in recent years, are so important.
The Farm Neighbors Care campaign is one way organizations have come together to spread awareness about mental health and farmers.
“We need to stamp out the stigma,” Ploeckelman said.
Farm Neighbors Care is an ongoing full-time, year-round campaign that’s taking on special significance in May as Mental Health Awareness Month is recognized.
The effort originated in one district of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Ploeckelman said, but has grown to be a coalition of 20-plus agricultural organizations, including the entirety of Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the National Farm Medicine Center.
While each organization in the coalition has different values, mission statements and agendas, Farm Neighbors Care has proven that farmer mental health is an issue that all the groups can get behind with one specific message, Ploeckelman said.
Farmer mental health has been described as a crisis.
A national American Farm Bureau Federation-sponsored Morning Consult poll found that 31% of rural adults have personally sought mental health care, and 24% have a family member who has sought care.
A recent article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that its findings “that producers have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide risk, in combination with the existing literature, demonstrate that this population is in need of public health supports for mental wellbeing.”
The study on which the article was based included 600 survey results from farmers from one of four states who were farming at least 1,000 acres. The survey results indicated that 27% of farmers met criteria for generalized anxiety disorder on an assessment that measures the severity of anxiety, a percentage about 8 points higher than estimated in the general population.
Over 7% of the surveyed sample was found to be at significant risk of suicide.
CDC data also indicates that male farmers die by suicide at a higher rate than the average for men across all industries in the U.S.
Efforts like Farm Neighbors Care are striving to make sure that people are aware of the farmer mental health crisis and provide options and resources to address it.
The Farm Neighbors Care campaign specifically works to encourage rural residents to check in on their neighbors.
According to Ploeckelman, the campaign revolves around the question of “How do we educate people to take care of your farm neighbors?”
Encouraging those who regularly interact with farmers, whether they’re a milk hauler, a veterinarian or staff at a local café, to check in with their farm neighbors to see how they’re doing could start a valuable, important conversation, Ploeckelman said. Raising awareness so that people know they should have and how to have these conversations is at the heart of Farm Neighbors Care.
Sometimes, farmers may be struggling but don’t seek out help themselves, Ploeckelman said.
There can be additional barriers for farmers seeking care, too, like access and cost.
According to Florence Becot, associate research scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center, “While there has been an emphasis in recent years on decreasing mental health stigmas among agricultural communities and while work has began to increase the cultural competency of health care providers, behavioral health care access in rural areas is woefully inadequate. Cost of care and inadequate insurance coverage are also barriers to care.”
While farmers may choose not to or be unable to seek professional help, their neighbors can still serve as a resource by bringing the conversation directly to the farmer, Ploeckelman said.
That conversation, even if its “just chatting,” could make all the difference to a farmer. Ploeckelman said that research has indicated that talking to someone and listening without judgment has the potential to save a life.
Join the campaign
Taking part in the campaign can be as simple as taking a donut and some milk down the road and asking “How are you doing?” Ploeckelman said.
In an era where the coronavirus pandemic continues to make some people uncomfortable visiting or receiving visitors in person, that conversation doesn’t even have to be in person. A phone call or text message can work, too, Ploeckelman said.
People and organizations can help spread awareness about the campaign and mental health by using #farmneighborscare on their social media pages. Participants can take a picture of the treat they may be delivering and post it, encouraging others to do the same.
Farm Neighbors Care also has a social media kit that is designed for use on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, and participants are invited to spread the message on other or emerging social media, too, Ploeckelman said.
Learn more about participating in the campaign at wfbf.com/farm-neighbors-care-campaign.
Heroes of Hope
During May, Wisconsin Farm Bureau is also spearheading a Heroes of Hope effort under the umbrella of the Farm Neighbors Care campaign.
From May 1-May 21, nominations are being accepted; the nominations will be narrowed down to five rural heroes that will be recognized for their efforts to help others on May 28. Those honored will received a prize package from local sponsors and have their stories told through Wisconsin Farm Bureau.
For more information on Heroes of Hope or to nominate someone, go to wfbf.com/farm-neighbors-care-campaign/heroes-of-hope.
In light of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the coalition of groups behind the Farm Neighbors Care campaign is offering three mental health webinars scheduled for May 12, 19 and 26 from noon to 1 each day.
On May 12, Wisconsin farmers will share their stories and how they’ve coped in an effort to break the stigma around mental health. On May 19, results and research on agriculture and rural mental health will be shared. On May 26, free and confidential mental health resources available to farmers will be shared by Wisconsin Farm Center staff.
Join any of the webinars, being held via Zoom, by visiting bit.ly/farmneighborswebinar.
Outside of the webinars, farmers and anyone trying to support them can find resources regarding mental health on the Wisconsin Farm Center website at tinyurl.com/FarmCenter. The Wisconsin Farm Center can also be reached by phone at 1-800-924-2474 or by email at email@example.com.
The Wisconsin Farm Center also operates 24/7 Wisconsin Farmer Wellness Hotline (1-888-901-2558), which is available to anyone who needs someone to talk to. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers free and confidential support 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Those hotlines are not just for people who may be considering suicide, Ploeckelman said. People can also call the hotlines for recommendations on resources or advice on how to support someone who is struggling.
Resources on addressing farm stress can also be found online from Wisconsin Farm Bureau (wfbf.com/mental-health-resources), UW-Extension (farms.extension.wisc.edu/farmstress) and Michigan State University Extension (tinyurl.com/s7kyvaps).