Stress of drought poses health problems for farmers

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Farming is stressful enough in a normal year, but add a months-long drought and many producers could be vulnerable to mental and behavioral health problems, says a mental health expert and former Purdue University assistant professor of nursing.

The emotional strain of watching their crops wither and livestock feed prices soar could cause farmers to slip into deep depression, substance abuse and even thoughts of suicide, said Roberta Schweitzer. She urged farmers to get help dealing with their stress if they feel helpless and hopeless.

"I grew up on a family farm, and you get used to the stressful times of the year, and then it relaxes a bit," Schweitzer said. "But when you have a big trauma like the drought, it makes it that much harder on a farmer because more and more stress is piled on top of what they already have to deal with, and it challenges their coping skills."

Schweitzer, who recently teamed with the Purdue-based Indiana AgrAbility Project to present a webinar on drought-related mental health issues, said the independent nature of farmers makes them less prone to talk about their emotional struggles or seek counseling than city dwellers.

"Farmers often feel responsible for getting everything done and being in control of everything, and in a case like the drought, you're not in control," she said. "There's a stigma attached to mental illness, and farmers don't want to be identified with that. They like to think they're able to function and take care of their families."

Those attitudes can have dire consequences. A study by Texas A&M University identified mental health disorders as the fourth highest health concern among rural residents surveyed. Also, a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine revealed suicide rates of 42-58 per 100,000 farmers and ranchers - higher than the general population - while research by the University of Maryland indicated that 41 percent of rural women reported depression or anxious feelings, compared with 20 percent of urban women.

Farmers often aren't aware when stress is harming their mental condition, or they ignore the signs and expect it to pass, Schweitzer said. In those situations, family members and friends might need to step in to help the farmer get the help he or she needs.

"If someone is depressed, they may be withdrawing, not taking care of themselves, not eating properly, sleeping all the time, starting to drink or use drugs, and pretty much giving up," Schweitzer said. "If someone is in that position, you'll want them to know that you are concerned and offer to help them be assessed for suicide risk because there's the potential of that occurring."

Stress management can stop negative emotions from becoming serious mental health problems, Schweitzer said. She recommended the following:

* Good health habits, including proper nutrition, exercise and adequate rest.

* Quality time with family and friends.

* Identifying personal stress "triggers" and activities that can provide relief.

"Another thing to do is make a list of what in your life you have control of and what you can't control," Schweitzer said. "If you can do something about those things on the list, then do it. If you can't do anything - and the drought falls into that category - then don't beat yourself up over it.

"Not being able to do something doesn't mean you are weak or incapable. It means you're human."

Schweitzer's webinar, "Mental/Behavioral Health Resources for the Drought Aftermath," is archived for viewing online. The website also contains a webinar transcript and resource sheet.



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