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Burgess: Mental health a hidden danger for farmers


When nonfarmers think of agriculture and rural communities, they tend to think of a slower pace of life. The image conjured up is one of a farmer in overalls working in his fields with a no-cab tractor and his wife tending to the chickens or hanging laundry on the line. Or perhaps it’s a rosy picture of a couple sitting on the porch in their rocking chairs, drinking sweet tea and looking out to all that they own and worked for. While the last part happens occasionally, things aren’t always what you see on television.

We all know as farmers that it takes all kinds to make up our ag community. Big or small farms. Men or women running them. Some are multigenerational and others, like mine, are just starting out. We all share the ups and downs of this life we chose. Sharing it with others can be difficult to those who don’t understand it, but we’re getting there. Some through social media, and some through things like farm tours. But what about right now? No-one wants to share what is possibly happening in rural America, perhaps even to a neighbor down the road. Something much more real than the media romanticism of agriculture.


It happens more than you think within our community. It’s not talked about because it’s seen as a sign of weakness among some. Too often, we brush it off as just being tired or exhausted — “I’m strung out because I have so much to do.” We try to cope by working harder so we don’t have to think about it. If people ask questions when they see you, the tendency is to keep quiet so people don’t think that you’re a wimp, crazy, or lazy. We want to be seen as tough, resilient, able to come out of anything without a scratch on us.

So what can cause this? Anything from family troubles, financial troubles, a sickness, poor harvest, livestock issues, or even new regulations from the government. All around stress will do it, too. We have one of the highest-stress jobs in the country. Long hours, whether we’re healthy or sick — farming doesn’t always wait.

This sometimes can lead to the unthinkable: suicide.

According to the last Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report done on suicides rates by occupation, farming was one of the top 3 overall — nearly 84.5 per 100,000 people.

Here’s where some of the problem lies: the lack of help. Yes, some of us work with family, so they should be able to understand if you want to talk. But would they really listen without being judgmental? Would they poke fun?

Then you have our communities, which are very close knit. How many times have you heard gossip of someone doing something, seemingly only moments after it happened? People close down when this happens. So where does he/she go? We’re not going to drive an hour away to a therapist who may not understand the issues. That’s taking a big step in itself to walk off the farm.

While researching places for a farmer like myself to go or my husband to go (if the need happens to come along), I was amazed at the lack of rural mental health in my area of Kansas. Then I wondered: If I’m having trouble finding it when I don’t need it, what about the person who is in trouble? What chance does he or she have?

From 1999 to 2010 the U.S. Federal Rural Health Policy funded Sowing the Seeds of Hope, a network of phone hotlines for rural communities. The project was shut down due to lack of funding. Rural Health Information Hub has more information on it, but it looks like it is not available anymore.

My husband, who originally came from England, said there was a phone number, a hotline of sorts, that farmers there who needed help could call. Call in and talk to someone who understands, because they are involved in agriculture as well as being trained to help. Would that be easier for the farmer who needs some support quietly, without judgement?

In 2013 the USDA put out a bulletin about funding $50 million more to its already $649 million to help with mental health facilities in rural areas. The money would help with construction, expanding, or better equipping those places.

Instead of places that may take a farmer off his farm into a town or city, how about fund something that they may use?

We’re 2 percent of America, and we should not only care about how we take care of the land — the food, fiber, and fuel we produce it on — but we should care about our health, not only physically, but mentally. We owe that to ourselves and our families.


Some of the signs of depression

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depressed mood.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable
  • Change in weight or appetite (either increase or decrease)
  • Change in activity: psychomotor agitation (being more active than usual) or psychomotor retardation (being less active than usual)
  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or not having any energy
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Difficulties concentrating and paying attention
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Understanding suicide

Suicide prevention sites


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