Spotlight On Rural Mental Health

After decades, farmers’ mental health issues are finally coming to the fore.

By Owen Roberts | Photos By © / Dimedrol68

Web exclusive: Where To Go For Help

The Do More Agriculture Foundation:

Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services:

Farm stress Line – Support for Rural Saskatchewan:

The Nebraska Rural Response Helpline (1-800-464-0258)

Wisconsin Farm Center (1-800-942-2474)

Vermont Farm First (1-877-493-6216)

Minnesota Department of Agriculture (1-833-600-2670)

Agrability – enhancing the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities:

More producers are acknowledging that challenges inherent in farming—isolation, price swings and the relentless battle with nature, among them—can leave them struggling with the likes of stress, anxiety and depression.

While not a new problem, it’s in the spotlight now, thanks to the increasing body of evidence gathered by mental health researchers who have reached out to the farm community. In Canada, that leadership has come largely from population medicine professor Andria Jones-Bitton at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Her study of mental health problems among veterinary professionals led her to expand her research to farmers, as the two share many troubling experiences—such as dealing with animal mortality and excruciatingly long and unpredictable working hours. 

She was right. A landmark stress and resiliency survey she and her team conducted of Canadian farmers in 2015–2016 set alarm bells ringing.  Of the 1,100 respondents, nearly 60% met the classification for anxiety, 45% for high stress and 35% for depression—far higher numbers than the general population norms, Jones-Bitton says. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the rate of suicides per 100,000 people in nonmetropolitan/rural counties was higher than in medium/small and large metropolitan counties every year from 2001 to 2015 (latest data available). These findings set the wheels in motion for change. But research showed there were few resources available for mental health issues specifically related to farmers. 

Changes, however, are now afoot. In the United States, a “Farmers First” bill was introduced in the Senate in April that, if passed, would help fund mental health support services for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers.

In June in Canada, the House of Commons agriculture committee met with producers and experts to better understand farmer and rancher mental health issues, share best practices, review available resources and identify gaps related to mental health.

Jones-Bitton and her team now are embarking on new research to tailor some existing mental health resources for farmers and create others—such as a mental health literacy program—to help address issues on both sides of the border. Another development in Canada is a new grassroots nonprofit organization called the Do More Agriculture Foundation, which posts a range of crisis lines and resources on its website. Its mission is to promote a culture where all producers are encouraged, empowered and supported to take care of their mental well-being. 

Jones-Bitton is heartened to see producers working together. “It’s exciting to see this organization created by farmers, for farmers,” she says. “It speaks to the importance of mental health to the ag community.”