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Health, Science & Environment

A new alliance is tackling mental health in Ohio agriculture

A farmer with a straw hat and red checkered shirt sits in a field. His eyes are shielded by his hat as he looks at his hands.
Pixabay
Ohio farmers deal with high rates of stress and stress-related diseases, but resources to help are often less accessible than in urban areas.

Stress-related health conditions, mental illness and suicide rates have been higher in agriculture than in other industries for decades.

Yet, rural areas don’t always have the resources to get people the help and support they need.

A newly formed alliance aims to fill that gap.

The Ohio Agricultural Mental Health Alliance is a collaboration between agriculture organizations, like the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio State Extension and the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and health agencies, including the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation.

Together, these groups are trying to break down barriers to mental health care in Ohio’s agricultural communities.

“To be able to bring those two groups together, to have these meaningful conversations about what's stressing farmers out and then the actual mental health aspect is going to take us a long way,” said Ty Higgins, senior director of communications and media relations for the Ohio Farm Bureau.

Stress on the farm

Farming is a particularly stressful profession, Higgins said, because so many aspects of the job are unpredictable.

“You're dealing with Mother Nature, the markets, equipment breakdowns, crop failures, family matters,” he said. “All those things can really add up.”

These are issues farmers have been dealing with for generations, Higgins said, and that shows.

"We're in an age now where you can't hide or duck from these types of problems anymore, and we don't want to.”
Ty Higgins

People who work in the agriculture sector have long had higher rates of suicide and stress-related conditions, like heart disease and hypertension.

But these problems aren’t going away.

Higgins said the spring of 2019 was particularly bad. It was so wet that more than a million acres of Ohio farmland didn’t get planted.

“When you can't plant a crop, not only does that outlook for the rest of the year not look good, but are you going to be able to survive as an operation long-term?” Higgins said.

“A farmer wants to continue what they're doing, not just for the rest of their lives, but often for those generations coming up behind them. So that drive to continue the farm for many, many years to come is certainly one of those factors when it comes to farm stress.”

This year, Ohio farmers are facing lower incomes, and Higgins said five Ohio farmers have already died by suicide.

“I grew up in ag and we'd hear every once in a while about a farmer in the county that decided to end his life by suicide, and that was it. And we just moved on and did our job,” Higgins said. “But we're in an age now where you can't hide or duck from these types of problems anymore, and we don't want to.”

How the Ohio Agricultural Mental Health Alliance can help

By bringing together agriculture and health professionals, the Ohio Agricultural Mental Health Alliance aims to tailor mental health resources specifically to farmers.

“We know the stressors,” Higgins said, “but we really don't know anything about mental health. So this alliance brought in the professionals on that side of the fence, so to speak.”

But the alliance works the other way too: Agriculture professionals are teaching their health counterparts about life on the farm.

Less than 2% of the population is involved in agriculture, Higgins said, so their stressors aren’t common knowledge.

“Many farmers want to reach out for help,” he said. “But they're afraid the person on the other end of the line simply won't get what they're saying.”

This alliance aims to change that, and it recently took its first group action: It launched a survey to gauge farm stress and determine how rural Ohioans handle that stress.

The survey is available to all rural Ohioans.

Higgins said the results will set a baseline so the group can determine how to best equip Ohio farmers with the tools they need to manage mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.