- “I don’t feel like it.”
- “I’m just tired.”
- “I’m just a little stressed. I’ll be fine.”
When a farmer or rancher makes a comment like one of these, it’s not always just a passing remark. It might be a sign of a serious mental or emotional health issue that calls for personal attention and action to make sure the person isn’t in a potentially harmful frame of mind.
Let there be no doubt—farming is a stressful occupation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data prior to the pandemic showing farmers are around five times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some farmers are experiencing stress and anxiety levels like never before.
Nationwide, the #1 insurer of farms and ranches in the U.S., talked with Ted Matthews, psychologist and director of Minnesota Rural Mental Health, to better understand how family members and friends can help when they see a farmer in need.
For many farmers and ranchers, there’s a stigma surrounding mental and emotional health care. Combine that with the common mindset “I’ll just work my way through it” leads to too many farmers not seeking the necessary help.
It’s up to family, friends and other loved ones to take steps to break down those barriers. It starts with communication.
“There are a few things you can do, but the first step and most effective tactic is pretty simple: Shut up and listen,” according to Matthews. Think about when you’re stressed and want to talk to someone; are you asking someone for advice or just to have them listen to you? Ninety-nine percent of the time, we just want people to listen to us. Look at that person with eyes that care. Don’t try to fix anything, and when someone’s done talking to you, say thank you for trusting you enough to share how they feel with you.”
Working through stigmas
For inherently independent farmers, sharing highly emotional thoughts and feelings is not always easy. Matthews recommends appealing to the farmer’s caring nature in communicating effectively about mental and emotional health.
“Sometimes it’s best to take away the concept of that person acting on their own behalf,” Matthews said. “I ask them to say, ‘Because I care about you, will you please call him for me?’ That engages a person’s care for others.”
In communicating with a farmer or rancher who you feel could be near his or her “breaking point,” Matthews recommends the following:
- Listen, don’t hear. It’s natural to want to be a “fixer.” Often, the best path to a life-saving resolution starts with listening intently and showing you’re doing so. “Communication is a two-way street,” he said. “Listen, then think about how you respond. If you’re a know-it-all, people won’t like you and won’t want to communicate. They have to be engaged.”
- Ask questions. This is not only a way to show you’re listening, but it also helps someone experiencing severe anxiety to open up and become more engaged in a conversation that can yield positive results.
- Don’t jump to conclusions or “dumb down” feelings. It’s easy to think about serious anxiety or stress in terms of concrete triggers, or a lack thereof. “There is nothing more complex in this universe than human emotion, so we always like to dumb it down to whether someone is happy or sad, up or down,” Matthews said. “Be open to how someone feels, whether you think they have a good reason to feel stressed or not. Don’t ever tell someone they feel a certain way.”
- Encourage self-care. Farmers and ranchers are generally strong, stoic individuals. In a time of high anxiety, that can be detrimental. Encouraging them to care for themselves first can contribute to more productive, often life-saving conversations. “When I ask farmers what it means to be nice, they rarely ever mention being nice to themselves,” Matthews said. “That needs to be a primary thought, but farmers aren’t good at that.”
Are you dealing with anxiety or depression? Are you concerned for the life of a loved one or friend who may be depressed?
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.
Call (800) 273-8255