As increased light is being shed on and more resources being directed toward farmer mental health, the stigma that once seemed to permeate the topic may be lessening some, but learning to embrace the help and resources being offered to those suffering from farm stress can take time.
Family situations, health issues, weather worries, financial distress and other stressors can all create accumulating pressure on farmers. Layering the COVID-19 pandemic onto already present stressors, specifically an aging farmer population; often inadequate access to health care and mental and behavioral health services; and a lack of digital access, doesn’t help either, said John Shutske, professor and Cooperative Extension specialist at UW-Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering.
The response from many farmers to those stressors has traditionally been to just shoulder the burden and move on.
“During times when we’re super busy and really stressed out, at least in my case,” Shutske said during the July 21 Professional Dairy Producer of Wisconsin Dairy Signal webinar, “it’s like, ‘OK, I’m just going to kind of check out of the unnecessary stuff, especially if it involves people, but I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone and instead of working 75 hours a week, I’m going to work 95 hours a week. I’m just going to work harder, and we’ll plow through this.’”
In an industry that has become synonymous with stoicism, that reaction can be the default, and changing how those stressors are automatically dealt with can take conscious effort.
Stress can be good in that it prepares people to react and activate their “fight or flight” response, Shutske said.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of stress,” Shutske said. “Stress is very necessary.”
It’s a human reaction required for survival and can aid in growth and be a lever for change, Shutske said.
In essence, stress is a response to a threat that the body and mind responds to, he said. The chemicals adrenaline and cortisol are released, the frontal part of the brain becomes less effective and the “fear center” of the mind takes over control of the situation.
Repeated stress, however, is another story.
The chemicals released in times of stress can build up and impact mind functioning, leading to a cycle in which bad decisions may be made and consequences of those decisions will have to be dealt with, setting off another stress event that continues the cycle, Shutske said.
All of that accumulated stress can lead to exacerbated anxiety or depression, potentially detrimental outcomes regarding health and injury, and elevated suicide risk, Shutske said.
There are “multiple throttles” farmers can use to try to break a stress cycle, Shutske said.
Planning, even if it can seem difficult to devote even a hour or two to doing so each week, is an investment in that can pay off in the long run, Shutske said.
Writing things down, he said, whether in a notebook, a smartphone’s note app or otherwise, can help in that memory can suffer in stressful situations. Being unable to remember can further add stress, something which written plans can help avoid.
Making an analogy to farmers making sure they have a plan in place before sending expensive machinery out, Shutske said the brain should be given as many tools as possible to make its job easier.
Building on that analogy, Shutske said that farmers are also unlikely to use substandard fuel in that equipment and therefore should be careful to keep their own bodies appropriately fueled with balanced nutrition and adequate hydration.
And while the mention of physical exercise as a way to cope stress has garnered eye rolls from farmers whose jobs are generally physically strenuous in and of themselves, Shutske said, of all the steps he discussed, physical exercise is the closest to a “magic bullet.”
It’s not that farming isn’t “the right kind of exercise,” Shutske said, but other purposeful exercise, such as a brisk 15-minute walk, provides an opportunity to escape the workplace and can have a noticeable effect by diminishing stress hormones and increasing anti-stress chemicals and hormones.
Building connections and keeping communication open are also critical during times of strain, Shutske said.
Trying to go it alone isn’t healthy, Shutske said, and can lead to loss of perspective and create an environment in which serious injuries or fatalities are more likely to happen.
Not only should producers maintain connections among people including family, friends or neighbors, they should also have connections who have expertise in areas including finances, law, production and health.
“When you’re talking about stress and some of these feelings that we’ve talked about, that sort of edginess and maybe difficulty sleeping or feeling anxious, what I always recommend is, make sure you’re checking in with your family doctor,” Shutske said.
While the steps are there, they also aren’t something that have to be undertaken all at once.
“I realize that these things are really difficult to put into practice,” Shutske said. “You’re not going to be able to do each one of these every day, but they add together; actually, they multiply together to have that positive impact.”
The idea is to pick a few and just try, Shutske said.
Making the effort to “slow the world down” an individualized experience can help, too, whether time for reflection involves journaling or writing letters or whether it includes going for a walk or sitting in a tree stand every November, Shutske said.
“Balance, I think, is almost like that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We never quite get there,” Shutske said. “But as long as we’re moving toward the rainbow, you see a lot of beautiful things as you’re pursuing the gold, even though you might not actually get to the gold. Certainly the rainbow is beautiful.”
In addition to all of these steps, there are many state and national resources for those struggling to cope with farm stress.
In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Farm Center, operated by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Harvest of Hope; UW-Extension and local suicide prevention groups are available to provide help and resources.
National resources include the Farm Aid Hotline, Farm Crisis Center, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and HOPELINE.
For more on how to handle farm stress, visit fyi.extension.wisc.edu/farmstress.