Monday, March 4, 2024

Mental Health In Agriculture

By Kara Bishop

If you’re a farmer or work in the ag industry at all, you don’t need to be told  the mental struggle is real. It’s not a surprise to many of us why this is a topic the health care industry has been increasing its efforts.

Mental toughness only goes so far when you’re staring at a plummeting market price. It only goes so far when the land you care so much about hasn’t seen rain in 18 months. It only goes so far when the tools you need to do your job well increase in price by 150% to 300% — and no one’s there to take care of your overhead because you own the business. Mental strength doesn’t fix an ever-increasing inflation rate or interest rates at the bank — you already have a risky business on paper, let’s add inflation to it with bottom-of-the-barrel prices. 

And I think the main problem with all these issues is the fact that they are totally outside of the farmer’s control. The farmer doesn’t dictate the weather or set the commodity price. The farmer doesn’t control the economy, nor can he or she solely lower the risk of the operation.

Plus, every year is different. Even good years come with challenges that add to the uncertainty of the current crop or next year’s crop. Last year was a bleak one for the Texas High Plains cotton industry. This year, while we’ve had some rain, is still a mixed bag. It’s hard to watch a $1.40 price in May 2022 dwindle to 79 cents in June 2023. It’s hard to watch a much-needed rain come with tragic tornadoes and baseball-size hail. And I haven’t even mentioned labor.

It’s hard. But it’s not new. I was talking to a farmer last year, back when prices were in the $1.40 range. He said it was hard to find motivation to start planting and ‘get going,’ because it was so dry. He didn’t think he would be able to make a crop, which was depressing in light of the best prices seen in decades. As he’s going through all the challenges his operation was facing, I literally asked, “So, what keeps you from jumping off of a bridge?”

And his response was something that the health care gurus don’t really talk about.

“Yeah, it’s hard.” he said. “But to make it through every year, a farmer has to be grounded in their faith — hard.”

Faith. That isn’t a popular topic when addressing mental health on a clinical level. And I’m not knocking clinical help or medication. We all deserve to be the best versions of ourselves, and counseling and medication are excellent tools when faced with insurmountable pressure. But I do believe faith should at least be part of the equation. 

We all love the anonymous quote: “There is no greater demonstration of faith than a man planting seeds in a field.” Because all the factors outside of a farmer’s control rest in the hands of a higher power. 

Farming can also be isolating. Chances are you’re not around many people during the day. It can be easy to retreat socially during busy seasons. When we do get together, it’s not popular to tell the friend group that we’re struggling mentally. When farmers hang around other farmers, it’s usually to talk about farming — not the mental stress they’re facing alongside the farming.

Yet, it’s also common to hear people talk about how friendly the agricultural industry is — how neighborly we are. And it’s true. Farmers will help other farmers do just about anything. Check each other’s fields as they’re driving by, work on a pivot together, etc. So why not share each other’s mental burdens? 

There are resources for everyone when it comes to taking care of mental health. Telemedicine has made huge waves in rural health care availability. If you need a counselor, you can download an app on your phone, pick one and do a session right from the tractor if you wanted to.

But wouldn’t it mean more if you could talk to someone who knows what you’re going through? Who is living it with you? Sometimes a good vent session is the healthiest thing you can do.

And while we’re being neighborly, let’s look out for each other. Check in with one another if you feel a friend has retreated mentally and/or physically. Because like it or not, the rate of suicide among farmers is 3.5 times higher than the general population. It’s an issue and we need to be observant.

And when it comes to observation, it’s typically not the “complainers” you need to worry about. It’s the ones who have stopped talking. Let’s all do our part to keep the conversation going. Don’t dismiss mental health. It’s vital to our success both as farmers and human beings.

— Kara Bishop
Plains Cotton Growers, Lubbock, Texas
kara@plainscotton.org


Cotton Farming’s back page is devoted to telling unusual “farm tales” or timely stories from across the Cotton Belt. Now it’s your turn. If you’ve got an interesting story to tell, send a short summary to csmith@onegrower.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

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