How researchers are getting farmers to talk about mental health

Christina Proctor spent many hours growing up on the front porches of neighborhood farms in Madison County.

She grew up rough, she said, and lives in a home riddled with substance abuse.

“But we lived on this street surrounded by farmers,” Proctor recalls. “So when there was something going on in my house, I would cross the street and sit on my neighbor’s porch, who was a farmer, just to get away from it all.”

She is now a clinical assistant professor at the University of Georgia, studying substance abuse and rural mental health. She’s revisiting Georgia’s farming community for a different reason: to get the farmers she’s relied on to speak out about their own mental health issues.

Proctor and her team spent time conducting in-depth interviews with 15 farmers in 10 counties. It is a task that some initially questioned as being achievable.

“When I first suggested this, people laughed at me,” she said. “They said, ‘Do you want to sit down with farmers and talk about mental health and drug use? Nobody will talk to you.‘”

LISTEN: Christina Proctor, clinical professor at the University of Georgia, describes her research on mental health in agriculture.

But Proctor said a crucial part of their interviews was meeting the farmers where they were – from fields to shops to dining tables in their own homes. Her visits gave a first-hand look into the lives of the people who feed America.

“One thing I noticed was that their phones kept ringing,” she recalled. “There was always a problem. In the northeast of the state, people were calling because cows were coming out…or something was happening in the chicken coop, the temperature wasn’t right. In the south-eastern part sprayers messed up, equipment failed. There was always something going on.”

Little is known in academia about how much stress farmers and producers carry on their shoulders and how they deal with it. Anecdotal evidence over time suggests strained family relationships, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and rising suicide rates are the result.

In 2019, Dr. Anna Scheyett, dean and professor at the UGA School of Social Work, tracked 106 farmer suicides from 2008 to 2015 and found that strained relationships and health and financial issues were the most common suicide-related stressors.

It’s important that we acknowledge the reality of stress and the other end of the spectrum, which can be death by suicide,” Scheyett said at a May conference in Tifton. “But these studies give us information on how to intervene. And at least give me hope of what we can do.

Getting the farming community to talk to strangers about their most personal struggles with mental health issues — symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts — seemed nearly impossible to other researchers hoping for help.

TIED TOGETHER: Farmers have been quietly struggling with their mental health for years. Are you ready to speak?

The pandemic held up a mirror to the widespread but often overlooked mental health issues in society.

Georgian lawmakers dubbed this past legislature “the year of mental health,” and passed sweeping reforms that proponents hope are just the first step toward creating parity in mental health in the healthcare system.

Still, in Georgia’s farming community, “people may not be willing to park their truck in front of the city’s mental health centerScheyett made it clear.

Brutal realities of peasant life

Researchers approach the problem differently. Stephanie Basey, a doctoral student at Mercer University School of Medicine, and her mentor, Dr. Anne Montgomery, assistant professor and biostatistician, reached more than 1,600 farmers and farm workers in nearly every county of Georgia through a detailed survey.

Their nationwide survey results painted a chilling picture. Farmers living a brutal reality of isolation and loneliness. A persistent dissatisfaction with their jobs while struggling to deal with stressors such as extreme weather and rising asking prices.

According to the survey, about 29% of responding farmers said they contemplate suicide at least once a month, and 42% at least once in the past year.

LISTEN: Stephanie Basey, a PhD student at Mercer University, talks about the goal of her research: to help prevent farmer suicide.

Obviously, the goal (of the study) would be to improve the mental health of all our farmers through farmer-specific interventions,” Basey said. “But if we can direct these interventions to help a farmer before they even think about or attempt suicide, that would obviously be the largest and most impactful part of the study.”.”

But that begs the question, where can farmers go for mental health support? Scheyett’s research suggests that farmers’ best confidants are spouses, friends, other farmers, faith leaders, and local doctors.

The Mercer survey revealed another brutal reality: 60% of farmers said they had no access to basic health care. More than half said they had no insurance.

“We found that (farmers) said they didn’t have access to the service but wanted to access the service, and that was a big learning for us,” Basey said.

The Mercer researchers said they found something they didn’t expect: an eagerness within the farming community to speak up and seek mental health treatment, but the challenge of knowing where to go.

“This is the first and most important intervention step we need to take,” said Chris Guy, director of special projects at Mercer’s Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center. “Because we can capitalize on that zeal to open the doors and really break down those barriers of stigma.”

But normalizing mental health conversations and improving access to health care in rural areas cannot happen overnight, and until then, farmers often have to cope with their own resources.

One farmer interviewed by Proctor using UGA put it bluntly: “It’s easier to drive through the beer store than it is to get treatment,” they said when discussing relying on alcohol to get along cope with prolonged stress.

The researchers hope their work can guide a new response to the severe mental health needs of Georgian agriculture — whether that be by providing training for loan officers to recognize signs of severe stress or by building support networks through trusted physicians and faith leaders.

The farmers just wanted to talk to us,” Proctor said. “They were glad someone was there to listen.”

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