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I am proud to say that I was born, raised, and am now living with my family in the great state of Mississippi. This state that I love has many positive attributes, but I want to focus on one that is near and dear to my heart: its agricultural roots. Until the untimely death of my husband, who was killed in an airplane accident, I was a farmer’s wife for 20 years. I was fortunate to watch my husband experience the joy of creating life with his hands, seed, soil, water, and God.

He never felt more at home than when he was walking his fields, admiring the hard work of his team and the grace of God. I also witnessed the terror of unexpected floods and the soul-crushing realization that a year’s market was overly saturated. As a wife, I wanted to comfort and support my husband.  But as a licensed psychologist, I wanted to understand more about the farming mindset and how the volatility of the profession affects its workers. Soon I realized that farmers often live their lives with one foot on living their dreams and the other foot on total financial ruin. This balancing act that farmers live often leaves them in a constant state of fear. I wanted to help, but I needed to learn more. What I found was fascinating.

Our Mississippi farmers and ranchers have one of the most professionally challenging jobs in our state. While most career paths are a pay-as-you-work model, farming and ranching have no real metric due to uncontrollable factors, such as weather and markets — two of the most unpredictable factors in the world. These two factors predict whether the business will cash flow or not. Some years we as a family cash flowed, and some years we did not.

Farmers plant seeds and raise animals never really knowing if their hard work will pay off until the end of the season. As a farmer’s wife, I experienced seasons of planting that were terrifying and others that were triumphant. With my family, I quickly learned that I needed to work hard to stay mentally healthy myself while bringing home a steady income to account for the high-risk nature of farming. Our farm has done very well some years, but some years we have had to rely on my income alone.

Which is why it is no wonder that among men and women in agriculture anxiety, depression and substance abuse are rampant. But, how could they not be with markets, weather, and foreign trade that are so unpredictable? Male farmers have the fourth highest rate of suicide of any industry. Three out of four farmers report being impacted by the opioid crisis along with other substance abuse disorders. Factors driving farmer suicide and substance misuse include unstable markets, changing weather patterns that result in either not enough or too much water, supply chain issues, concerns about the future of the farm, family issues, debt overload, machinery issues, low yields, interest rates, labor, the isolating nature of farming, the seasonal need of overtime work, government regulations, and so much more. 

Working in an industry with such a large amount of chronic stressors frequently results in a decline in emotional well-being and physical health. Particularly, stress is associated with an increased prevalence of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Untreated anxiety and depression often lead to substance use, misuse and dependence. Also, research suggests that chronic stress amongst farmers can lead to physical health problems such as headaches, sleep problems, memory loss, somatic systems, unexplained physical pain and injuries due to the frequent repetitive nature of the physical labor.

Farmers have also been more likely to report that life was not worth living than non-farmers. Living with such a high level of stress can negatively impact life in many ways — including less interest in pleasure, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, weight change, tiredness, irritability, problems sleeping, fatigue, loss of control, and anxiety. Also, loss of self-esteem, withdrawal from social activity, relationship breakdown, forgetfulness, anger issues, relaxation problems, feeling blue, and substance abuse have also been reported. A danger of burnout and exhaustion is possible with all these symptoms. Burnout is a gradually developing disorder that may consist of physical and mental exhaustion, a cynical attitude toward work, and a reduction in self-esteem. Most importantly, mental disorders have been identified as one of the key risk factors for suicide attempts among farmers. High suicide rates among farmers, farm manager and agricultural labor have been reported in several studies, which is considered one of the most serious concerns affecting some farming communities.

This is not to say that the farming community is without upside — quite the opposite. The upside is beautifully intense some years. Constant hard work leads to lush fields, farmers growing needed crops for their communities, and providing for their families and then some. But the psychological dangers of the job are not spoken about and, amongst non-farmers, not even known about. That’s why I, and my team at Killebrew Psychological Services, have started working directly with farmers. Using my inside knowledge of the farming community, we have developed a program that specializes in the mental well-being of farmers and is tailored specifically for what these men and women do day in and day out.

The goal of the program is to steer farmers toward a healthy state of mind, as defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” In order to accomplish this, Killebrew Psychological Services uses protective factors to fight against mental health issues for farmers. Some of the treatment modalities that may be used include:

  • Pharmacogenetics
  • Psychological evaluations are used to determine baseline in order to create tailored plans with tracking systems to determine when symptoms are reducing
  • Therapy using techniques aimed at reducing emotional distress tolerance while learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. We also provide virtual therapy for those individuals who are located in remote rural areas.
  • Mindfulness and meditation skills training
  • Exercise and nutrition evaluations and accountability diet
  • Creativity: Art mediums enable us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Over the years, I have observed that a tell-tale sign that a patient is getting better is when they start getting creative. I encourage my clients to start creating things using all types of artistic modalities.
  • Never-give-up attitude

Each program is tailored specifically to the person being treated. The goal is to replace a constant state of anxiety with confidence that will ultimately allow farmers to elevate their work to an entirely new level. If you are a farmer or know a farmer who needs support, please contact Killebrew Psychological Services at 769-231-9414 or email us at [email protected].