MSUToday
Published: May 20, 2019

MSU Extension tackles farm stress

Contact(s): Eileen Gianiodis Agriculture and Natural Resources office: (517) 432-1555, ext. 230 cell: (517) 242-4753 gianiod1@msu.edu, Jeff Dwyer MSU Extension office: (517) 355-0118 dwyerje@msu.edu, Laurie Sears MSU Extension lsears@msu.edu

“Three years ago, it went through my mind that it might be better if I weren’t here. I thought about just driving off the road.”

That’s what Michigan House of Representatives member Luke Meerman (88th District) told a group of Extension professionals from around the country at MSU in January. His heartfelt account of the day he classifies as the worst in his life struck a chord with the 99 people in the room.

“My great-grandmother founded this farm in 1882,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘They’ve been able to figure it out and it will all end with me.’”

His experience is not unique. For farmers nationwide, the pressure of maintaining a successful business in the face of so many uncontrollable issues can lead to stress, mental health issues and, for some, even suicide. 

Michael Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer who works to improve the behavioral health care of those in rural America, said suicide is more common among farmers than any other occupational group and two times the rate of military veterans.

As difficult as it is to hear about, “Mr. Meerman’s example is the one that we need,” Rosmann said. “We are in the worst economic farm depression since the 1980s.”

Rosmann received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and a doctoral degree from the University of Utah. He spent five years as a faculty member in the University of Virginia Department of Psychology before moving with his family to a farm in western Iowa.

“If we’re going to save lives, we have to know what’s so important about the way people farm.  We have to understand why they do it,” Rosmann said. “We need therapists and mental health practitioners who understand the culture of agriculture. 

That’s where MSU Extension fits in. MSU Extension educators are not therapists or mental health practitioners, but they regularly interact with farmers and see the signs of distress.

“Our outreach professionals are uniquely positioned at the intersection of agriculture and emotional health,” said Jeff Dwyer, director of MSU Extension.

Dwyer said Cooperative Extension organizations across the country are the perfect place to get help to farmers dealing with financial and personal loss, especially those who might be contemplating suicide.

“We couldn’t tackle this without the 100-plus years of history of trusted relationships with communities,” he said. “If we all stayed in our lanes, we couldn’t do this – collaborations and partnerships are what we do best.”

MSU Extension is leading the way in ensuring that its educators are trained to recognize the symptoms of mental health issues and training other states’ Cooperative Extension professionals about these issues. Dwyer said 70 percent of MSU Extension staff members have successfully completed Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour, evidence-based program that teaches how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues, how to communicate with someone experiencing a mental health struggle or crisis and how to connect people to appropriate resources.

“Our farm stress management programming combines expertise and research knowledge about trends in commodity pricing and agricultural income, various stressors that farmers face, the impacts of stress, coping strategies such as mindfulness, as well as warning signs of suicide,” said Courtney Cuthbertson, who leads the effort for MSU Extension.

To date, MSU Extension has offered farm stress management programs to more than 1,000 farmers and those who care about them. The programs offer a holistic approach to those experiencing stress by combining an overview of current farm financial situations and a discussion of the physical and mental impacts of stress. Attendees learn how to recognize signs of stress and potential suicide in the farming community and how to connect people with appropriate resources.

Cuthbertson, who also conducts research about farmer mental health, points to social isolation, financial stress and difficulty in seeking mental health services as reasons for rising suicide numbers among farmers.

“Stigma related to mental health makes it more difficult for farmers to disclose any mental health concerns or to seek mental health services,” Cuthbertson said. She said the programs include brief points about opioid use and misuse as well.

Dwyer said the image of farming often doesn’t depict the grueling nature of the work.

“Many of us think of farms as idyllic,” he said. “And what is portrayed is ideal, but what is not often shown is how hard farming is on both the body and the mind.”

Given the higher risk of physical injury in farming compared with other occupations, it is highly possible that farmers would be prescribed opioids, Cuthbertson said.

A report, commissioned by the American Farm Bureau, noted that more than a quarter of farmers say they have taken an opioid or other prescription painkiller without a prescription or have been addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers. And more than a quarter of those surveyed believe it would be somewhat or very easy to access a large amount of prescription opioids without a prescription.

Dwyer said that it is critical to address the mental health needs of both the community and his own staff members who regularly serve those in distress.

“In a crisis, we have to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.”

MSU Extension educators provided support to Meerman during his struggles. He said Extension provided understanding and assistance with financial management as he was losing what felt like everything.

Relinquishing the farm might not be the solution for everyone, Meerman said.

“For some, that’s the answer – to get out from underneath the stress,” he said. “And that’s a hard thing for farmers because their hearts are in it. There are examples of success after farming, too – I became a state legislator.”

For more information on MSU Extension Farm Stress Management resources and programs, visit the Managing Farm Stress website or contact Cuthbertson at cuthbe16@msu.edu. If you or a loved one needs help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “GO” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.