What to know about stress, anxiety and depression in the agricultural industry
You're probably aware that agriculture is one of America's most hazardous industries. Compared to other occupations, farmers—as well as their family members—have an elevated risk of fatal and nonfatal injuries.
What you may not realize is that agriculture exposes workers to more than just physical health hazards. Farming and the unique challenges it poses can lead to issues like chronic stress, anxiety and depression. These mental health issues can have a long-term impact on the overall wellbeing of farmers and their families. The good news is that they're manageable. Read on to learn more.
Understanding chronic stress and its relationship to anxiety and depression
Think of stress as the body's response to real or perceived threats. Stress can be either acute or chronic. The main difference between chronic stress and acute stress is the length of time that the response lasts in the body.
The acute stress response is a normal and necessary function of your nervous system that is meant to keep you safe and alert to potential danger. In acutely stressful situations—such as coming across an aggressive animal or getting into a car accident—your nervous system will activate the "fight or flight" mode by releasing compounds like norepinephrine and cortisol. These compounds have multiple effects on your body, such as elevating your heart rate and raising your blood pressure, and are meant to help you respond quickly to the situation. Once the situation is over, your nervous system will switch off this "fight or flight" mode and help you return to a more relaxed state.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is defined as a consistent sense of pressure, overload and feeling overwhelmed that lasts for a prolonged period of time. For modern day farmers, threats (also called stressors) like extreme weather, financial and economic hardship, relationship problems and chronic disease may show up day in and day out. This means that the nervous system's stress response never has a chance to "turn off," which can have a harmful effect on the body and brain.
People dealing with chronic stress may experience physical symptoms that range from fidgeting and constipation to headaches and jaw clenching. A person may get sick more often because chronic stress can suppress the immune system. In the long-term, chronic stress may increase the risk of health problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and mood disorders—including anxiety and depression.
How farming families can cope with chronic stress, anxiety and depression
If you're a farmer or family member dealing with mental health challenges, you do have options.
First, recognize your primary stressors. People who study farmers' mental health find that factors like debt, production costs, equipment management, weather and employee relations are common sources of high stress. Of course, not all farming stressors are within your control, but being able to identify the specific ones you struggle with can help you become more aware of how you respond to them.
Next, spend some time reflecting. Do you recognize signs and symptoms of chronic stress in yourself or a loved one? Can you make one or two sustainable choices that will help you manage your stress more effectively, such as improving your diet or reducing your pace a little?
Finally, take advantage of available resources. If you’re like most farmers, you probably don't like waste. Don't let valuable local and national resources for farmers’ wellbeing sit unused. Check out the Farmer Resource Network, Farm State of Mind and other resources compiled by SIU Medicine's Family Farm Resource Initiative (FFRI). You can also talk to your health care provider about getting a referral to a mental health professional for individual, family and/or couples counseling. Sessions can be conducted using telehealth, giving you and your loved ones greater flexibility in scheduling.
The bottom line
Stress, anxiety and depression can feel isolating and overwhelming—but that doesn't mean you have to handle them alone.
If you're interested in learning about more resources in your area that can help you address your farming family's mental and physical health needs, contact FFRI by calling or texting 1-833-FARM-SOS (833-327-6767) or via email to FarmFamilyResourceHelpline@mhsil.com.
Karen Leavitt Stallman
Ag Resource Specialist