Advocating for farmers’ mental health can ‘save lives’

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, June 15, 2022

May is the month when people across the nation focus on mental health awareness, but American Farm Bureau Federation wants individuals to be cognizant of farmers’ mental health year-round.

“Today isn’t the end of raising awareness, it’s the beginning,” noted Jessica Cabrera, staff lead for AFBF’s Farm State of Mind campaign, which hosted a virtual event on May 31 titled “Farmers Saving Lives.”

“Telling our stories and letting it be known that we can be advocates for farmers can help save lives,” Cabrera added. She said that the more people who support farmers and encourage them to get help when it’s needed will make a huge difference.

Listeners heard from James Dixon, an Arkansas poultry farmer who said that as a 23-year-old operating a $1 million farm on his own, he was stressed out and used alcohol to cope. In hindsight, he said, talking to someone when he first recognized he had a problem would have been helpful.

A little over a decade ago, he explained, people he knew didn’t talk about going to therapy. “It wasn’t accepted, and you felt like if you went, it was a sign of weakness. Things have gotten a lot better.”

Dixon advised farmers who are struggling to reach out to someone they can trust.

“When I called my dad that night, it saved my life,” he shared about reaching a breaking point and asking for help. After he told his father he was drinking 24/7 and having problems quitting, his family and friends worked tirelessly to get him help. He’s been sober since December 2015.

According to AFBF national research, a strong majority of farmers and farmworkers say financial issues, farm or business problems and fear of losing the farm impact farmers’ mental health, and a majority of rural adults and farmers and farmworkers are experiencing more stress and mental health challenges than they were a year ago. Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers also have higher-than-average rates of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cynthie Christensen is a licensed therapist and Minnesota Farm Bureau member who grew up on a family farm. While working as a psychiatric nurse at an acute care hospital, she encountered farmers who had been admitted because they were contemplating suicide.

Doctors would advise them to take a vacation or stay in the hospital for a week, something Christensen said created more stress. “They’re not going to take a week off from work,” she said. She began advocating for farmers’ mental health, and that motivated her to get a master’s degree and become a therapist.

She said it’s invaluable for farmers like Dixon to share private stories about their mental health struggles. “It’s so important to talk about what we’re all experiencing.”