Farming is a bedrock industry of Wisconsin, but the stresses and unique challenges of working in agriculture can have major effects on the mental health of those doing the work. Farmers experience a higher rate of depression and a higher rate of death by suicide compared to those working in most other occupations, said Dr. Florence Becot, a rural sociologist and associate research scientist for the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.
Challenging working conditions and the pandemic
Long, hard hours, an inability to take time off, and the stigma of seeking help for mental health are among the factors that may discourage farmers from getting the care they need. Access to help may be another barrier, especially for farmers in rural America. The American Farm Bureau Federation found 46% of farmers say it is difficult to find mental health help in their communities.
The pandemic also seems to have played a role in farmer mental health. The American Farm Bureau Federation found 61% of farmers reported experiencing more stress and mental health challenges in 2021 than in 2020.
Another issue is that, while farmers are often well insured, their insurance may not cover mental health needs. Becot, who has recently briefed United States senators and White House staffers about farmers’ challenges accessing health care, including for mental health, said the pandemic has helped draw more attention to the issue.
“We need short- and long-term solutions for addressing farmer mental health and getting people the support, treatment and resources they need to live a fulfilling life,” Becot said.
Innovation to serve rural communities
Marshfield Clinic Health System has trained dozens of individuals living in local agricultural communities in mental health first aid. Bankers, insurance agents and others who have a lot of contact with farm workers were trained to recognize signs of anxiety, depression and possible suicidal thoughts. This has acted as a first line of defense, equipping people directly in farm communities with the tools to recognize mental health red flags.
Systemic progress needed
More needs to be done on a systemic level to build a better mental health infrastructure both for those working in agriculture as well as for rural residents more broadly, Becot said.
While essential, building a better mental health infrastructure is only one step to support farm workers. Becot said another important way to address mental health challenges is for policy makers and farm organizations to create policies that support farm economics and the well-being of farmers.