Old man on farm with children

For many, the holiday season is a time of joy. Family get-togethers, holiday parties and gift exchanges are just a few reasons the holidays bring happiness to people.

But for others, this time of year can cause flare-ups of depression and anxiety. This year, the sort of holiday anxiety common during the holiday season could in some instances be worse than normal given the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on the normal gatherings of family and friends.

That’s why this an important time to focus on mental health in agriculture. Watch for signs if your loved ones may be suffering or hurting and be there to listen, then offer help if they need it.

Why farmers face mental health challenges

Farmers are proud, self-reliant, independent people with a strong work ethic. These values contribute to success on the farm, but they can also contribute to mental health problems going unaddressed—as farmers are sometimes reluctant to seek help if they’re feeling anxiety or depression.

“I think you can trace it back to our grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors who blazed the trail for so many others. They did it on their own with no help. They couldn’t sit back and take a break. This has been instilled in us generations later even though we don’t realize it,” said Hillsboro, Ohio, farmer Nathan Brown. “But we can’t do it all without taking care of our mental health and taking a break when we need one.”

Also a District 20 Trustee for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Nathan Brown, is an advocate for farmers’ mental health awareness. It’s too often a stigmatizing, taboo topic for farmers who are inclined to neglect their own mental health. And that can become harmful if mental health becomes strained by things like operational challenges, difficult crop and livestock markets and outside stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's hard enough to get a crop planted, cared for and harvested. On top of that, we have our government yelling at each other, a trade war and a pandemic on top of it. Altogether, it has taken the enthusiasm and excitement out of agriculture,” Brown said. “But we have to remember it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to struggle. But, it’s not okay to suffer.”

Listen and watch for subtle signs

Easing any potential suffering from mental health is rooted in listening. With farmers, it’s not always an easy conversation to start. That makes it important for friends, family and loved ones to be attentive to body language and comments that might really be a cry for help. Brown had such a conversation with a friend and fellow farmer, but he didn’t immediately recognize it as a “cry for help.”

“I got a phone call from him out of the blue on a Sunday afternoon, and he said he had some pigs get out and asked me to help get them back in. I thought it was a strange request. They were all back in the barn by the time I got there. But I got to talking with him a little bit and I knew he was really on edge,” Brown said. “During the conversation, I finally just asked him ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ It took him a minute, but then he realized maybe he'd called me for more than help getting his pigs back in. We talked for 2 1/2 hours.”

Brown’s friend was wary of seeking help from a mental health professional until Brown worked with him to break down the stigma. Since then, his friend has sought help, embraced the process and achieved positive results.

Don’t neglect yourself

Farmers and agricultural people are often selfless and quick to help a fellow farmer, friend, family member or other loved one when the need arises. But it’s important to be sure not to devote all of your attention and energy to others, especially this time of year. According to Jason Medows, rancher and host of Ag State of Mind, a podcast devoted to breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental health in agriculture, “compassion fatigue” can happen when we fail to account for our own mental health. It’s easy to happen especially during the holiday season.

“We have to be graceful to ourselves as well with others. I think we all suffer from being hard on ourselves. It's not just the lonely people or those we think are at risk. it's everyone,” Medows said. “Compassion fatigue is a very real thing and can happen when you’re focused on looking out for everyone else’s best interests. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.”

Be ready to take action

The stigmas surrounding mental health care often make farmers less likely than the general population to attend to their own well-being. That underscores the importance of being attentive when a farmer makes a request for help, whether that means simply listening or providing assistance in getting professional help.

“A lot of farmers are comfortable asking you for help loading hogs, but they aren't necessarily comfortable asking for just a friend or somebody to be around. Be mindful of that and pay attention when somebody reaches out,” Medows said. “Maybe it is just them wanting your help loading hogs, working cows or cleaning bins. But maybe it's something more than that. Pay attention to those little things. That’s where you’ll make the greatest impact.”

See helping farmers cope with COVID-19 stress.

During the holiday season, Medows recommends being extra attentive to the subtle signs a farmer may be experiencing a mental health challenge.

“For so many people, the holidays are a time of gathering and happiness and people who love one another getting together and celebrating. When you're left out of that, that can be a really serious thing. So, do your best to make sure there are people included, or reach out to someone who you know doesn't have someone,” Medows said. “This will be the first holiday season in this post-COVID world and I'm not sure we're equipped to handle it yet. We're not going to be perfect. There's no textbook for this. You're not always going to do the best thing, but you can always try to do what you think is best.”

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