As a fourth-generation farmer and Chairman of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, I can attest to the fact that farming, by its nature, can be extremely stressful — even during the best of times. The bottom line is subject to natural factors — such as weather, disease, predators, and pests — and human factors including marketplace fluctuation and governmental regulations.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a whole new set of variables to the equation. Mandated business shutdowns, school closures, and statewide quarantine measures meant many dairy farmers were forced to dump their milk and crops rotted in the field or in storage. The crisis added to already existing stress factors, creating or compounding mental health issues and, in extreme cases, leading to suicide.
Impacts of COVID-19 on Rural Mental Health — a December 2020 national study by the American Farm Bureau Federation — found that 66% of farmers and farmworkers reported the pandemic impacted their mental health. The study also found that 60% of rural adults were concerned about financial issues, 54% worried about losing their farm, and 51% said they were worried about an uncertain future.
At the state level, we recognized the stress factors even before the pandemic. In February 2020, I joined with state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding to lead a roundtable discussion at the Penn State Beaver campus to discuss the factors that put Pennsylvania farmers at high risk for mental health disorders and suicide.
Just a few months later, with COVID-19 ravaging our state and nation, I called a public hearing of the Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee on Sept. 22 in Harrisburg to consider the widespread and devastating impact of the pandemic on Pennsylvania’s farming community. Video from that hearing is available at: https://wi.st/3pjXPII.
Testifiers confirmed and reinforced our serious concerns. We knew farmers were already susceptible to depression and other mental health issues; unfortunately, COVID-19 significantly intensified those problems. Cliff Wallace, representing the Beaver-Lawrence County Farm Bureau at the hearing, clearly and succinctly summed up the mental health crisis and the impact of COVID-19.
“The economic discomfort and discouragement have been filling my neighbor’s lives. Farms that have been in families for over a hundred years are now being shut down. I have seen grief. I have seen suicides. I have seen bankruptcies. For a family business to shut down, the generation in charge feels like a failure. For the generation remaining, the economics make it impossible to start the business up again. Farmers are a proud stoic type. They tend not to share their concerns with others. This creates stress inside them and inside their families.”
Testifiers emphasized that farmers are traditionally less likely to seek professional help than the average adult. Availability and accessibility can be problematic for people in rural areas and the costs of treatment can also be a deterrent when a family farm’s finances are tight.
But above all that, stigma is, in many cases, the primary obstacle that prevents farmers from seeking professional help. This is not just a state and local concern, but one that impacts farmers across the nation.
Eighty-seven percent of the farmers/farmworkers polled by the American Farm Bureau Federation said it is “important” to reduce stigma about mental health in the agriculture community, including 59% who consider it to be “very important.”
Farmers are proud and they are independent. Self-reliance and personal strength are often necessary traits for those who till the soil or spend countless hours carefully tending to their livestock, but they can build major barriers to seeking out assistance when they need it.
It will take a major, coordinated effort on the part of all stakeholders for Pennsylvania to overcome those hurdles and ensure that our farmers seek out and receive the care they need and deserve. The Department of Agriculture has compiled a list of specific warning signs to alert families and friends that a farmer may be experiencing mental health issues including:
• Decline in care of crops, animals, and farm
• Deterioration of personal appearance
• Withdrawing from social events
• Increase in farm accidents
• Change in routine
• Increased physical complaints
• Increase in alcohol
• Giving away prized possessions
Above all, if you are experiencing negative feelings or know someone who is, please reach out for help.
Pennsylvania offers free crisis counseling 24/7 for anyone feeling stressed, overwhelmed, alone, or anxious through the Support and Referral Helpline, (855) 284-2494. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or is considering suicide, help is available by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Pennsylvania Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-47th Dist., represents all of Lawrence County and parts of Beaver and Butler counties. To read the Impacts of COVID-19 on Rural Mental Health study go to: bit.ly/3ifOvUQ. For information on state mental wellness resources for the agriculture community, visit: bit.ly/34Hvy5H.