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Farmers in Crisis, Long Overlooked, Are Finally Getting Mental Health Support

Amid a mounting mental health crisis among farmers, experts are working to make help more accessible.

Chris Bardenhagen used to shrug off any worries about mental health, but the stresses of taking over his struggling family farm now have him seriously considering therapy. Bardenhagen is a sixth-generation farmer who grew up on an 80-acre multicrop orchard in Michigan that his family has run since the 1800s. And it all was officially transferred to him on January 1—a transition that he says has “been too much too fast” as he has scrambled to find financial support and profitable crops.

“We needed to simplify the farm for me to safely take over and not have it, you know, consume my entire life,” Bardenhagen says. “We've whittled it down basically to some high-density apples.”This streamlined operation now costs about $60,000 a year—less than half the amount needed when the family grew a wider variety of crops, including cherries and potatoes. To further offset costs, Bardenhagen has another job as a farm business management educator at Michigan State University (MSU). He has also taken out loans through a Farm Service Agency financing program. The stress can be all-consuming for farmers who, like Bardenhagen, are solidly entrenched in the industry and desperate for ways to cope. “You’re gambling your whole career,” he says. “Is the industry going to pull out of this tailspin or not?”

The agriculture business has become increasingly unstable. Financial uncertainty, physical isolation and increasingly unpredictable crop yields linked to climate change are just some of the stressors that are fueling a mental health crisis among farmers. The anxiety can be overwhelming—especially in many farming communities that have historically struggled with access to mental health services and the stigma of seeking help. A recent CDC study of occupational suicide risk found that male farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers had a suicide rate more than 50 percent higher than the overall suicide rate of men in all surveyed occupations. Research also suggests that farmers have increased risk of heart disease caused in part by chronic stress and hardships from the job.

These alarming statistics have spurred nationwide mental health efforts that are finally showing signs of paying off. Some programs, such as the Farm Aid farmer resource network and Michigan State University’s Managing Farm Stress program, are alleviating financial emergencies, providing access to free hotlines and therapy, and building support networks within the community. Therapists and other mental health professionals who specialize in agriculture-related issues have been setting up more resources to help farmers and combat stigma about seeking treatment. Research suggests that stigma is now starting to change: in the American Farm Bureau Federation’s latest survey of 2,000 farmers, 92 percent said they would be comfortable talking about solutions for dealing with stress or a mental health condition with a friend or family member.

Finances are a farmer’s number one stressor, says Remington Rice, a multigenerational farmer and behavioral health educator at MSU. U.S. farm income for 2023 is projected to decline by 23 percent from 2022, which would be the most significant drop in the past two decades. Financial well-being is also directly related to other concerns, prominently including climate change: temperature and precipitation fluctuations will cause increasing crop failure rates if the global temperature continues to rise. These and many other factors beyond individual control affect farmers in ways that people in other livelihoods may not regularly experience, Rice says. “A dentist has an office somewhere on the other side of town—he doesn't see his patients lining up at his home,” he says, “whereas my dad, he can see the cattle from his window. He doesn't really have the same physical separation that other professions have.”


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