May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, with farm work in full swing, is an ideal time to check in with members of the agricultural community about how they are doing.
Recent research suggests the stigma around mental health in farm country is beginning to break down, but it will take time to normalize discussions around how our farmers and ranchers are feeling about the weather, their finances, and the potential for a good yield. Despite the time needed to break down those barriers, farmers and ranchers are among the most susceptible to mental health concerns.
Demographically speaking, men are 3.7 times more likely to die by self-inflicted death. Most suicides occur in people aged 18-64 who live in rural communities. More specifically, men from predominantly white and/or Native American communities are the two most high-risk categories of people for self-harm or suicide, making farmers and ranchers particularly high risk.
There are several actions the family, friends, and neighbors of farmers and ranchers can take to keep our food producers safe. Most people are unfamiliar with the warning signs of mental health distress or may notice something is different but cannot identify what it is. This is a list of warning signs that may indicate someone is at risk:
- Change in routines or social activities;
- Increase in farm accidents;
- Signs of stress in children including struggles with school;
- Decline in the care of domestic animals;
- Decline in the appearance of farm or ranch surroundings;
- Increase in illness or other chronic conditions; and/or
- Decreased interest in activities or events.
There are also physical signs of prolonged stress including chronic backaches, headaches, ulcers, frequent illness, loss of appetite, irritability, and lack of concentration among several other indicators.
In addition to looking for warning signs, family, friends, and neighbors who are not trained in mental health crisis response can still help people they believe might be struggling. Even people who are not struggling with serious mental health issues can still benefit from the most common forms of first-line intervention.
When reaching out to a farmer or rancher believed to be in distress ask questions, be present with active listening and follow up questions, express empathy – not sympathy – and stay connected with them via their preferred method of communication.
Whatever family, friends, and neighbors do to help our growers through the challenges of the growing season, any effort is the chance to keep farmers engaged and not bogged down in the difficulties agriculture. These efforts could save a life.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Pam Lewison is a farmer, Pacific Research Institute fellow and director of the Washington Policy Center’s Initiative on Agriculture.