Some mornings are better than others. Some are filled with sunshine and positive thoughts, but the vast majority are gloomy, leaving me with very little energy to get out of bed and start my day. At first, I thought it was the seasons, attributing how I was feeling to the fleeting sunlight in the winter months, but the feeling persisted into the dog days of summer which are known for lots of sun and warmth.
I thought I could overcome these feelings, the negative thoughts that filled my mind, but nothing seemed to help. I finally decided to call my primary care physician, who helped me come to terms with my situation. Five years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.
I’ve contemplated time and time again if I should tell my story and the ramifications that may come with my transparency. Would my vulnerability provide an opportunity for people to call me weak? To question my ability to do my job? This internal struggle went on for weeks, impacting my mental health even more.
I believe data provides answers to issues we may not want to confront. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among farmers are one and a half times higher than the national average. These suicide rates send a very clear message: We need to talk more about mental health. We need to prioritize farmers’ and ranchers’ personal needs as much as our overarching policy requests.
The findings and data included in the CDC report made it very clear, we have a crisis brewing up in Rural America and I need to tell my story, so those of you reading this can feel comfortable to do the same.
Mental health in rural America should be a focal point, not a secondary issue. The agricultural industry has recently started rolling out some efforts to combat this crisis. One in particular worth noting would be the Farm State of Mind campaign that has helped elevate the issue at the national level.
The American Farm Bureau Federation conducted its first survey on this topic in 2019 and recently conducted a national poll which indicates a strong majority of farmers/farmworkers say the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their mental health. More than half say they are personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year ago.
From a policy angle, Congress should provide more funding and resources to rural communities, as well as telehealth. More than 60% of rural Americans live in areas where there are few if any mental health professionals, and more than 90% of psychologists and psychiatrists work in metropolitan areas. From those statistics, it becomes clear that rural residents need better access to telehealth resources.
We saw some progress on some of our mental health policy requests recently, with the passage of a Farm Bureau-supported measure, the Seeding Rural Resilience Act, intended to help farmers and ranchers respond to stress and decrease the stigma associated with mental health care in rural communities.
The Seeding Rural Resilience Act would create three initiatives to promote mental health awareness and wellness in rural America:
- A farmer-facing training program that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide voluntary stress management training to employees of its Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
- Collaboration among state, local and stakeholders, led by the secretary of agriculture, to determine best practices for responding to farm and ranch mental stress.
- A $3 million campaign from the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA to increase public awareness of farm and ranch stress and destigmatize mental health care in rural communities.
It’s crucial to expedite this sort of assistance, but addressing the issue requires a two-pronged approach. We may have the programs set up to assist farmers and ranchers, but without removing the stigma associated with mental health, many may not be willing to utilize such resources. That is why we need to continue talking about this together, normalizing the conversation and making the direct linkage between physical and mental health.
From my own experience, it’s tough to come forward and say something about one’s own mental health. The panelists in our mental health session couldn’t agree more, and offered helpful advice:
- If you feel burdened by stress and need help, talk with someone.
- If you’re not comfortable talking with your friends or family, call a health provider—they’ll find a way to help you.
- Look up resources online; you can find many resources on the Farm State of Mind website at www.fb.org/land/fsom.
Know that you are not alone and if you know someone who may be struggling, don’t wait for them to ask for help. Reach out and let them know you want to listen.
As an industry, we need to commit to doing just that. Let’s continue fighting for issues affecting farming operations —which includes mental health in Rural America.
About the author: Sara Neagu-Reed is associate director of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau.
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