Farm stress can lead to physical, mental distress
RAYMOND, Miss. -- Edward Jenkins manages his family’s small farm in Grace, Mississippi. It’s property that has been in his family since the 1940s.
Like other farms, Jenkins’ family-run operation is a delicate balancing act of making the right decisions and dealing with issues that are beyond a farmer’s control, including weather and markets. It’s a high-pressure business.
“My first 20 years of farming, I quit 19 times. Every year when I finished harvesting, I’d tell my brother that was it,” Jenkins said during filming of Mississippi State University’s miniseries titled “On the Farm.”
The stress of the business felt like too much.
“The goal is to make money, and I thought once I made the money it would relieve the stress,” he explains in the film. “On the 19th year, I made quite a bit of money, but I was just as stressed out with money as I was when I was broke. OK, I made money; OK, I’m still worried. So, I was thinking I can’t do it.”
He was so stressed that he ended up in the doctor’s office one day. He thought he’d had a heart attack and a stroke. He hadn’t.
“They told me I was as healthy as a 21-year-old,” Jenkins said. “It was just farm stress.”
Jenkins is still farming with his brother, and they hope to one day hand the business down to their sons.
David Buys, MSU Extension Service health specialist, said Jenkins’ experience is not uncommon among farmers.
“The pressure many farmers feel to maintain the land they farm is an added source of stress that many people in other jobs don’t feel,” Buys said. “They often feel compelled to hang on to it because of the connection to the generations before them and because they want to hand the farm down to their children and grandchildren.”
Farm stress can lead to mental health risks for farmers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, male agricultural workers have the fourth highest suicide rate among men in all industries.
“Farmers have experienced high suicide rates, addiction, depression and stress-related illness, which can be made worse because the problems often remain hidden,” Buys said. “There are legitimate reasons why people in agriculture are struggling. They feel an extraordinary amount of stress because of the things out of their control: economics, weather, input costs, commodity prices, ag policy and so much more.”
While May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, is behind us, farm stress is not. Family, friends and community play an important role in recognizing when someone may need help.
Buys said there are many indicators that can signal when a farmer may be under too much stress. A few examples include changes in typical patterns or routines, decline in attention to crops or animals, increase in accidents, and a decline in the upkeep of the farm.
Extension’s Mental Health First Aid training provides individuals with the skills to notice and to reach out to farmers who may not ask for help themselves. The program is offered through The PROMISE Initiative, short for “Preventing Opioid Misuse In the SouthEast.” It focuses on opioid misuse prevention and enhancing mental health among rural populations, especially agricultural producers.
“This program is an important part of reducing the stigma around getting help and educating people about the unique challenges that our agricultural communities face,” Buys said.
For more information about Mental Health First Aid training, visit the Extension web site at https://tinyurl.com/4buuy4vx or contact the local Extension office.
To hear more of Jenkins’ story along with other Mississippi farmers’ stories, watch the entire “On the Farm” miniseries at https://www.onthefarm.life.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.