Farmers in Crisis, Long Overlooked, Are Finally Getting Mental Health Support

Chris Bardenhagen used to shrug off any worries about mental health, but the stresses of taking over his struggling family farm now have him seriously considering therapy. Bardenhagen is a sixth-generation farmer who grew up on an 80-acre multicrop orchard in Michigan that his family has run since the 1800s. And it all was officially transferred to him on January 1—a transition that he says has “been too much too fast” as he has scrambled to find financial support and profitable crops.

“We needed to simplify the farm for me to safely take over and not have it, you know, consume my entire life,” Bardenhagen says. “We’ve whittled it down basically to some high-density apples.”

This streamlined operation now costs about $60,000 a year—less than half the amount needed when the family grew a wider variety of crops, including cherries and potatoes. To further offset costs, Bardenhagen has another job as a farm business management educator at Michigan State University (MSU). He has also taken out loans through a Farm Service Agency financing program. The stress can be all-consuming for farmers who, like Bardenhagen, are solidly entrenched in the industry and desperate for ways to cope. “You’re gambling your whole career,” he says. “Is the industry going to pull out of this tailspin or not?”

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The agriculture business has become increasingly unstable. Financial uncertainty, physical isolation and increasingly unpredictable crop yields linked to climate change are just some of the stressors that are fueling a mental health crisis among farmers. The anxiety can be overwhelming—especially in many farming communities that have historically struggled with access to mental health services and the stigma of seeking help. A recent CDC study of occupational suicide risk found that male farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers had a suicide rate more than 50 percent higher than the overall suicide rate of men in all surveyed occupations. Research also suggests that farmers have increased risk of heart disease caused in part by chronic stress and hardships from the job.

These alarming statistics have spurred nationwide mental health efforts that are finally showing signs of paying off. Some programs, such as the Farm Aid farmer resource network and Michigan State University’s Managing Farm Stress program, are alleviating financial emergencies, providing access to free hotlines and therapy, and building support networks within the community. Therapists and other mental health professionals who specialize in agriculture-related issues have been setting up more resources to help farmers and combat stigma about seeking treatment. Research suggests that stigma is now starting to change: in the American Farm Bureau Federation’s latest survey of 2,000 farmers, 92 percent said they would be comfortable talking about solutions for dealing with stress or a mental health condition with a friend or family member.

Finances are a farmer’s number one stressor, says Remington Rice, a multigenerational farmer and behavioral health educator at MSU. U.S. farm income for 2023 is projected to decline by 23 percent from 2022, which would be the most significant drop in the past two decades. Financial well-being is also directly related to other concerns, prominently including climate change: temperature and precipitation fluctuations will cause increasing crop failure rates if the global temperature continues to rise. These and many other factors beyond individual control affect farmers in ways that people in other livelihoods may not regularly experience, Rice says. “A dentist has an office somewhere on the other side of town—he doesn’t see his patients lining up at his home,” he says, “whereas my dad, he can see the cattle from his window. He doesn’t really have the same physical separation that other professions have.”

More than 60 percent of rural Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health providers, leaving many without access to care. Expanded teletherapy can help fill those gaps. Rice heads MSU’s Managing Farm Stress program, which offers farmers teletherapy at little to no cost, as well as a free course for family members on how to identify signs of stress and suicidal thinking. So far the MSU program has referred 48 farmers to therapy and trained 17 farmers in Mental Health First Aid—another program that teaches people how to spot symptoms and help others who are experiencing mental health issues.

The MSU program is one of many mental health support efforts for farmers—such as the AgriStress Helpline and the Cultivemos network—that are now being developed across the country. But even though more resources are available than ever before, Rice says stigma remains a stubborn barrier in rural America. Seeking mental health support is often seen as a weakness, he adds, noting that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is still a common “survival strategy” that prevents many farmers from looking into therapy. So he is trying to shift the mindset. “It’s just like if your tractor were to break down, and it’s something that you don’t know how to do or don’t have the right tools to fix. You would take it to a shop to get work done,” Rice says. “The same thing applies to behavioral health.”

Teletherapy also helps farmers who are concerned about being seen going to a counselor; they don’t have to worry about someone noticing their truck in a provider’s parking lot. But if there’s still hesitation about therapy, participating in relaxed social gatherings can also build connection and awareness. Rice joins events that are dedicated to other topics but still let farmers informally share their unique experiences and concerns. In a meeting about tractor safety, for instance, Rice will add secondary information on suicide prevention—a helpful outreach approach for farmers who aren’t comfortable attending discussions that are solely focused on mental health topics.

Having mental health experts mix naturally into such gatherings and conferences not only increases awareness of available services but also humanizes the treatment process, says Elizabeth Gonzalez Ibarra, a Farm Aid hotline operator who focuses on reaching Spanish-speaking farmers and farmworkers. “Being there in person and telling them, ‘Hey, I’m going to be there on the other side to be there for you. I’m here to listen to you,’ makes a big difference,” she says. “They need to know I’m going to do everything in my power to try to find whatever they need but also primarily to be there for their mental health.” Ibarra’s program is a part of a new initiative to provide stress relief and resources in Spanish. So far, she says, people are mostly calling about financial concerns because low-paid farmworkers are disproportionately Hispanic. Ibarra says it might be a while until a significant number of farmers and agricultural workers get enthusiastic about therapy, but she remains encouraged by the shift in how mental health issues are discussed—especially, she says, among younger farming generations, who seem more receptive to care.

Public perception also matters, and advocates say showing more appreciation for farmers would encourage them to keep going and to feel better about their work. Negative beliefs about farmers—that they are uneducated, for example, or unconcerned about the environment and climate change—don’t reflect the majority of the farming community, Rice says, adding that unfounded criticism and hostility are extremely harmful to mental health. “Farmers are often demonized,” Rice says. “That is also contributing to the suicide rate. What people don’t understand is that farmers are feeding us: no farmers, no food. We really do need them.”

For Bardenhagen, his farm is his life. But in order to keep his small business alive, he needs to take care of himself first. He advises new farmers to question whether the business is a good fit for them. It comes with a lot of unexpected pressures. And when the burden feels extra heavy, he tries to remind himself of the aspects of the job that bring him joy and stability—such as planting apple trees on land his family has called home for more than 150 years.

“It’s home,” Bardenhagen says. “I like a lot of other places in the world. But it’s home.”


If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use the online Lifeline Chat.

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