Q&A with Jim Birge: How stress takes a toll on farm families

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The Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Center for Rural Health and Social Services Development (CRHSSD) partners with our rural and agricultural neighbors through our Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI). Jim Birge, FBCM, manager at Sangamon County Farm Bureau, answers top questions related to the stressors that farmers and farm families face today and why FFRI is such an asset to our community. 

Why is the FFRI so important to the region right now?

We have seen a significant uptick in mental health struggles that farmers are facing. Like the rest of us, they’ve dealt with COVID-related hardships that weigh on them, such as children learning from home, potential unemployment of spouse, parenting stress, lack of social interaction, etc. In addition to those stresses that we can all relate to, farmers have additional stresses that affect them. Livestock prices plummeted as the pandemic broke out.

With processors and food companies unable to operate at standard capacity, livestock could not be processed, and some had to be euthanized. Farmers suffered the mental anguish of dealing with euthanasia and the loss of income related to it. That can lead to a farm that is no longer profitable, which, in turn, leads to the fear of losing the farm and the farmland that, in many cases, had been handed down from generations of family before them. Farmers are generally quiet, proud people that do not seek help easily. The FFRI provides people with the opportunity to recognize mental health issues and provide the resources to help farmers through them.

Have you seen an increase in interest in talking about the stressors of farming in recent years?

Over the last few years, I’ve become far more aware of the signs of mental health stressors. Through that education, either I’ve seen more of what has always been there regarding farm stressors, or they have increased. Either way, stress levels are pretty high overall.  

There’s so much at stake in farming, and much of what influences success or failure depends on the market value of their crops and livestock and the weather. Farmers have no control of either of these crucial influences. Add the pandemic, and you have a lot of need for counseling. Through open discussion and efforts to bring mental health awareness to light, I have seen an increase in the willingness to talk about it. But there’s still a long way to go.

What is the best way to address the stigma that many farm families feel about addressing issues of mental health?

Consistently providing information regarding the issue is an excellent way to bring awareness. Publishing articles on multiple information platforms helps to keep information in front of people. The more people are exposed to information about it, the more likely they become to accept its validity. That, in turn, leads to a greater acceptance to talk about it and, if necessary, seek help.

Are there farmers in your family? 

Discover how we're helping farm owners and farm families in Christian, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Morgan and Sangamon connect with physical and mental health resources that can help them stay safe and serve their community. 

Some of the area's leading physicians and mental health professionals call SIU Medicine home. Call 217-545-8000 now to schedule an appointment or learn more about FFRI. 

Farmers and their loved ones can also contact the FFRI helpline (1-833-FARM-SOS), 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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