Farmers shaking hands in soybean field

Farmers need not feel alone or stigmatized over mental health concerns

May 5, 2023 | Jeff Hutton

It's the hallmark of those who work the land and feed the world — self-reliance, hard work and pride. Farmers carve out their lives and make things happen without leaning on others.

But the uncertainty of the weather, the volatility of the markets, rising input costs, equipment maintenance and the unknowns of what the future holds are enough to test any farmer’s resolve and overall well-being.

While most farmers are eternal optimists — many say you have to be if you want to survive the farming business — there should be no shame in seeking help or assistance in times of difficulty.

That’s the message from officials at Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) during Mental Health Awareness Month in May, and throughout the year.

“The majority of farmers rely on their ability to cope and manage any stressor they have,” says Dr. David N. Brown, a behavioral health state specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach.

“But sometimes, just talking to somebody can help and make a real difference,” says Tammy Jacobs, hotline supervisor and mental health first aid trainer with ISU Human Sciences Extension and Outreach.

Available resources

Both Brown and Jacobs share the importance of mental health services and general information that farmers and their friends and families, as well as Iowa’s rural communities, can turn to during difficult times.

Iowa Concern, a 24/7 hotline, provides a listening and knowledgeable ear to those facing various pressures and concerns, such as legal, financial, stress (depression, parenting and wellness) or crisis/disaster concerns.

The hotline was established in 1985, during the heart of the farm crisis — a confluence of failed policies, increasing debt, land and commodity price booms and busts, drought, bank failures and more.

Over the past four decades, the hotline has evolved into a resource for those who struggled with natural disasters like Iowa’s 1993 floods, recent tornadoes and the 2020 derecho. It was also a resource for Iowans during COVID-19 shutdowns, which isolated and affected those in rural and urban areas.

Brown and Jacobs say ISU has accessed funds to provide mental health education, suicide prevention and stress assistance programs from 2019 and 2020 Farm and Ranch Stress Assistant Network grants. These grants were funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and also included support for the Iowa Concern hotline.

The 2020 grant, awarded to the University of Illinois, allowed ISU Extension and Outreach to subcontract and expand services, including the development of training to assist mental health and healthcare professionals learn more about the culture of farming.

A 2021 grant from IDALS allowed ISU, as a subcontractor, to offer community outreach and programming, and distribute farmer resource packets in 86 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

These packets have been shared with Iowa’s farmers, agri-businesses, veterinarians, school districts and others who have contact with farmers or rural residents.

The publications include hotline numbers, information about the signs and symptoms of mental health concerns, the warning signs of suicidal intent, alcohol and substance abuse, available resources and statistical information.

Ending the stigma

Brown and Jacobs acknowledge the stigma of mental health concerns remains an obstacle.

“The mentality is that farmers out there are saying they are still likely to tough it out,” Brown says. “They want to be self-reliant and just do it on their own.”

This mentality or approach aligns with Iowans in general, Jacobs says.

“One of our goals is to change the stigma by educating folks on what to look for and how to talk to the person in need.”

One of the few silver linings of the COVID pandemic, Jacobs says, was the comfortability of farmers to call and reach out for assistance. Farmers and those in rural communities were more open to seeking help because they knew they could reach out from their combine or tractor without going to a therapist in person.

Challenges abound

When it comes to mental health, what are the concerns that farmers and their families face?

“Much of it is financial, the uncertainty of it all,” says Jacobs. “Even before you put the seed in the ground, you have no control over what might happen.”

Other factors might be transitioning from farming to retirement.

“A lot of farmers have heritage farms,” she says. “Retiring farmers have a hard time letting go of the farm. It’s part of their identity. Younger generations have a weight on their shoulders to make sure the farm is successful.” Weather woes, Brown says, impact the overall emotional and mental well-being.

Drought-concerns over the years have been a key struggle for many, whether it’s those who have row crops, livestock or both, he says.

Drought decimated pastures and hay prices were at record highs.

“It’s often all about finances, and that’s scary,” Brown says.

Jacobs says it’s the unknowns of farming that have an impact. Even beyond what’s happening locally, farmers must contend with what happens overseas, wars, export and import markets, and animal diseases — all uncontrollable factors.

“It’s turmoil,” Brown says. “Farmers always have to be on alert.”

Keep talking

Jacobs and Brown say there’s no shame in seeking counsel and support.

“A farmer’s whole health is very important,” Jacobs says. “It’s not just physical health, but also emotional and mental well-being.”

Trained staff is available for help by calling Iowa Concern at 800-447-1985.

“I would tell farmers to talk to anyone: their spouse, best friend, another farmer. Please talk to someone,” Brown says.