By Joel Penhorwood
Agriculture can often be seen as an idyllic community of people working the land that are too tough to be bothered by the stresses of the outside world. Unfortunately, that’s not true, and more farms and rural areas are being affected by something that is all too often ignored — mental health.
It’s not an easy time to be in agriculture. Low commodity prices and other challenges are altering what it’s like to be a farmer. This puts stress on mental health, which often goes unaddressed and can sometimes lead to dire, but avoidable, consequences.
Steve and Debbie Terrill founded the 501(c)(3) volunteer organization Mindful Minds, hoping to challenge the stigma and silence surrounding mental health through education and community engagement. The Terrills are residents of rural Logan County and active in the Indian Lake community. From their perspective, quite a few of the current shortfalls in society come back to mental health. The skyrocketing rates of suicides, school shootings, overdoses, or a variety of other actions are evidence of this, they said.
They say farmers are some of the most at-risk people in rural communities today. Farming in particular has a stigma of mental health being an unmentionable weakness. Steve said it’s time to get over that and realize there are a variety of reasons people experience these issues.
“What farmers need to do is get back and build the foundation of mental health knowledge so we understand how these things happen,” Steve said.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said male farmers across 17 states took their own lives at a rate two times higher than the general population in 2012. Recent research work from agriculture students at Cal Poly paints an even darker picture. Results show suicide rates in agriculture being higher than any other occupation: 84.5 per 100,000 people. Also, suicide rates are about 50% higher today than they were during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Low commodity prices, tough corporate structures, and more are playing into the day-to-day stress experienced by the farmer. While a certain amount anxiety can be a good thing, according to Debbie Terrill, too much leads to negative consequences.
“Because a certain amount of anxiety can be a motivator and allow you to do things, a certain amount of anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s when it starts to affect your whole life and everything you do — then it becomes mental health problem,” she said. “There are so many sheep in the pen on this — there’s so much to look at. Dialogue is what makes a difference. You get people in communities to talk about it and get together. They realize they have the power to make a difference in their communities.”
It’s that community discussion that Steve and Debbie are encouraging through Mindful Minds, alongside a program called “Mental Health First Aid.” The idea itself is not complicated — begin discussions about mental health and recognize some common symptoms and warning signs.
“It is a basic foundation of mental health education 101. The concepts can help with the stigma too. Just like a farmer learns how to grow corn, mental health education starts by learning more,” Steve said. “In mental health, with those that go untreated, the likelihood of getting worse is much higher. Mental health first aid is an 8-hour course. Just like first aid, we want to help somebody. A lot of people who take it, they either know somebody who has experienced issues or have experienced it themselves.”
Programs like Mental Health First Aid should be top of mind for rural communities, Steve said.
“Farmers are taught to be strong and not to show weakness. It is the same thing with our soldiers. Rural American suicide has increased almost 40% since 1999. We need to do a better job of recognizing and treating problems before they happen,” he said.
Learning the signs of mental illness means it can be detected early and action can be taken sooner, rather than later. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it may be useful to follow up with a mental health professional if several of the following issues are occurring:
- Sleep or appetite changes — Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
- Mood changes — Rapid or dramatic shifts in emotions or depressed feelings
- Withdrawal — Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Drop in functioning — An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Problems thinking — Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
- Increased sensitivity — Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
- Apathy — Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
- Feeling disconnected — A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
- Illogical thinking — Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
- Nervousness — Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
- Unusual behavior – Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior.
Work is also underway to challenge the issue of mental health education at a policy level. The Terrills hold that current reaction to mental health challenges is a problem in itself. When shootings happen, guns are the focus. When overdoses occur, it’s the drug’s fault. In addition, the Terrills feel there should be a focus on what’s happening in the brain that makes a person feel like they have to take such extreme actions.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture addressed the the growing mental health problems in rural America, adding $50 million for mental health resources for farmers in the 2018 Farm Bill passed in December. The FARMERS FIRST Act was included in the Bill and originally introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
“Farmers are the backbone of our rural economy and leaders in our rural communities. Washington has been slow to recognize the challenges that farmers are facing, and the daily stressors that they experience during difficult years,” said Sen.Baldwin.
FARMERS FIRST stands for Facilitating Accessible Resources for Mental health and Encouraging Rural Solutions For Immediate Response to Stressful Times. It was designed to provide stress assistance programs to farmers and ranchers, including counseling and support through telephone helplines and websites, training for advocates for affected individuals, support groups, outreach services and activities, and delivery of assistance for farm residents who are homebound.
Though help of any kind is welcome, the Terrills said farmers and rural communities need to recognize its not weakness that leads to mental health problems.
“The mental health problem you’re experiencing could be a genetic disposition you were born with or it could be a traumatic event that affects you later. We all are affected in one way or another,” Steve said. “In America, 1 in 4 people experience a mental illness in any given year. Less than 50% get treated.”
What it comes down to is recognizing the issue and taking steps to address it.
For more information about Mental Health First Aid, or other initiatives by Mindful Minds, visit www.mindful-minds.net, or call (919) 623-0952.