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Mental health and agriculture: The bigger picture


May is mental health awareness month, and it’s something that hits close to home. I’ve consistently struggled with anxiety and depression as a direct result of uncontrollable fear and stress. My heart continually goes out to the men and women of the farming industry who share this obstacle.

Farming has one of the highest suicide rates of any professional industry. I’ve interacted with many farmers over the past six years, some I am more closely than others. I love agriculture, primarily because it has some of the most genuine people I have ever met. I have so much respect for the men, women, and children who put blood, sweat, and tears day in and day out to help feed the world. They are a rare breed. However rural America and farmers are often not exposed to mental health services. It’s also a profession that mixes home, life, and work together often. Isolation has also become more common as machines and technology have adapted and improved. They are spending more and more time alone in their machines, which lets the mind run wild.

Farmers also are often the type of people who like to keep to themselves — over time you can get to be your own worst enemy.

While no one I have been exposed to has passed away, I remember recently reading an article about a farmer who decided to end his life. My heart broke for this man and his family. However, I immediately thought about how he must have felt. Production agriculture is a tough, tough business. So many things are out of your control. Weather, market prices, equipment breakdowns, animal illness, wild fires … the list goes on. Farmers also have a sense of pride and identity in their communities, and farm can seem to be the only possible way of life. This is something I know affects people with high anxiety and/or depression in a negative way.

Some of the common symptoms of anxiety and depression, two of the biggest mental health illnesses out there today, are: uncontrollable thoughts, stress that is out of proportion to the event, fear, sense of impending doom, racing heartbeat, hopelessness, guilt, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, and social isolation, among many others. Can you imagine dealing with all of this on top of trying to maintain your farm on a daily basis? The pain and struggle has to be unimaginable for these people, but the amazing thing is there is hope and healthy ways to manage your mental health and get back to a normal life, even in rural America.

A lot of people see mental health as an illness, not a form of health maintenance just like working out. While the stigma surrounding it has indeed improved, it is still difficult for many people to admit they can’t shake it on their own. For me that was without a doubt the hardest thing I ever had to do. Asking for help as a young male just didn’t seem right. It took me a long time to realize my ego was my biggest enemy. Once I asked for help my life improved.

Whether you tell a friend, a loved one, or a doctor, you are not weak. You are simply asking to improve your quality of life. For rural America it can be harder to reach out, but it is possible. Find a relationship with something bigger than yourself — for me it has been God. Any time I have an issue out of my control, I simply try and turn it over to him. That effort has helped immensely. I have found things I am passionate for outside of working and have immersed myself in them whenever I have free time, these hobbies have allowed me to get out of my own head. It just so happens that one of those hobbies is writing.

There are several states that have implemented a service for their farmers — whether it involves seeing a traveling therapist, getting some help on a defaulted loan, or even getting some support for the business, the times are slowly changing for rural Americans and mental health. One thing is for certain: As long as I breathe, I will always be there for anyone who needs it. So, if you are struggling with mental health and don’t see a way out, you are without a doubt not alone. Don’t give up, don’t ever give up. You have a purpose in life, whether it is hard to see or not. It is OK to not be OK. Realizing that saved my life.

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