By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -— The summer’s drought may have caused stress to more than just plants and livestock, as farmers might be feeling the effects too, according to a mental health expert.
Even in a normal year, farmers deal with almost daily stress, such as debt load, machinery breakdowns and rising expenses. Add drought to the list and the situation might become unbearable for some, said Dr. Roberta Schweitzer, a former assistant professor of nursing at Purdue University.
“Farming is indeed stressful. There’s not a time when you’re not trying to meet a deadline or get something in or planted or harvested,” she said. “The problem is, the more stress you have, it is difficult on your body and physical being as well as your emotional being.”
Farming was listed as one of the top 10 most stressful occupations in the United States in a study done a few years ago by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Schweitzer noted. She spoke Sept. 27 during a webinar hosted by the Indiana AgrAbility Project.
AgrAbility is a USDA-sponsored program that assists farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities. There are 23 projects serving 25 states.
The biggest stressors farmers deal with on a daily basis are unpredictability and lack of control, Schweitzer explained.
“Things are unpredictable and can’t always be controlled,” she said. “What happens if you are not controlling them? Then you think you are a failure. That adds more stress to day-to-day.”
A disaster such as the drought, which has been ongoing for months and which has the potential to have an impact for years to come, adds to stress and anxiety, she said. Professional help may be found through local crisis counseling, emergency rooms, local clergy or local mental health counselors.
For more information, she recommended the National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org or the National Institutes of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov or the AgrAbility Project www.agrability.org
Dealing with a drought this severe is a stressful experience for many farmers, said Dr. Michael R. Rosmann, a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Iowa and founding partner of AgriWellness, Inc.
He said he recently had a phone call from a woman in Indiana, who shared a story about a farmer and neighbor who was told by an official with the Farm Service Agency not to bother to harvest his crop because it wasn’t worth it.
“He was told to just go out and disc the field, which he did, and that drew media attention,” Rosmann recalled. “Her husband started to cry as he watched the news account. He said ‘it was the first time I’ve seen anyone disc his crop because there wasn’t anything there.’”
The general population may not understand the concerns of farmers, as the public often thinks as long as plenty of food is available, everything must be fine, noted Rosmann, who also authors the weekly column “Farm & Ranch Life” in Farm World.
The public “tends to think farmers are a lot of complainers,” he said. “The USDA is taking care of them, so why are they worried? Well, we’re worried because we don’t have a farm bill. Everybody is in a wait-and-see position, causing stress for everyone.”
Looking toward next year, farmers are also concerned about receiving enough moisture to replenish wells and subsoil, Rosmann explained, adding the drought and problems related to it will continue into 2013.
Farmers have management plans to deal with everything from planting to harvesting to finances and they should also have a farmer or farm family management plan to help deal with stress and provide tools for coping, Schweitzer said.
“Just like we take care of fields and crops and livestock and everything that we have on our farms, we need to take as much time as we can to take care of ourselves and our families,” she noted.
Farmers feeling particularly stressed may have a change in routine, may not care for their crops and livestock as well as they used to and may have increases in physical illness and farm accidents, she said. They may also have headaches, backaches, changes in eating and sleep patterns, sadness, depression and anger.
Anyone seeing signs of depression or even suicide shouldn’t be concerned that they’re not a trained professional when trying to help, Schweitzer said. “Worrying about what to say is less important than what to do with them and how to be with them,” she said.
“(Tell them) ‘you don’t have to handle this alone. You have family and friends. I’ll support you as much as I can and we can find you additional support that’s professionally trained.’ Along with that would come the praising and reinforcing the fact that they are sharing with you. That’s a very hard thing to do. Not everybody loves to sit down and talk about (their) weaknesses and failings. This means maybe they trusted you enough to let you in on what’s going on in their life.”