We live in stressful times. Those who earn their living in agriculture have faced an extra heaping of stress in recent years due to depressed commodity prices, and unfortunately, the toll can be too much to take.
A front-page story in the Jan. 23 edition of The Country Today reported that more than 47,000 people committed suicide in the U.S. in 2017, including 915 in Wisconsin. Farmers are at an increased risk for suicide due to their self-reliant nature, limited access to mental health services, reluctance to seek help, a “farm comes first” mentality, access to lethal means, and lack of control over things like weather and income.
Suicide rates have continued to spike over the past two decades, especially in rural areas, and the suicide rate for males age 45 to 64 is double that of the general population, with four times as many men dying by suicide than women, according to the story.
Without question, this information is startling, and beyond concerning.
Speaking earlier this month at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 100th annual convention in New Orleans, John Shutske, UW-Madison professor and Extension agricultural safety and health specialist, outlined the causes of stress and the best practices for coping with a lot of it.
Shutske, who has worked with farmers on stress management for more than 30 years, encouraged them to implement strategies to handle the pressure.
“Stress impacts farmers mentally and physically, and it comes in many formats,” he said. “A lot of times when we talk about stress, we focus on short-term impact, but we need to also look at long-term stress.”
Shutske explained the cycle of stress and the impact it has on the human brain; while some stress is normal and inevitable just as part of life, long-term chronic stress can be worrisome.
“If you have constant levels of high stress, your brain receptors physically begin to wear out,” he said. “If your brain is constantly fueling stress hormones, it can lead to serious problems.”
Not only can stress impact blood pressure and anxiety, it can severely harm relationships.
“Long-term stress can also impact opioid and alcohol misuse, and we know from research that farmers have a higher rate of suicide,” he said.
Shutske urges farmers to focus on the things they can control in their businesses and relationships and offered ways to proactively manage stress. They’re worth sharing:
• Plan. Look ahead to the coming weeks and plot out what you can. Don’t forget to set aside time aside for family and hobbies.
• Set goals. This can help you stay focused on what needs to get done. Set goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-specific.
• Write things down. This helps you mentally prepare for the tasks on your to-do list. Typing on a device doesn’t always have the same impact.
• Health. Maintaining overall health is important for moderating stress levels. Don’t underestimate the importance of visiting a family practitioner and having a frank conversation about mental health.
• Fuel. With the brain using a quarter of the body’s energy, eating a balanced diet must be a priority to manage stress. Watching caffeine and sugar intake is important, too.
• Exercise. This shouldn’t be overlooked as a stress management tool. Regular activity can help balance stress levels.
• Relaxation. Take time to reflect or meditate to keep stress in check.
We would add one more to this list: Stop to count your blessings.
While it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and focus only on our problems and what we have no power to change, people often forget to take stock of what’s going right and consider how things could always be much worse.