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The mental health crisis happening in our fields

Day-to-day stresses can often be nothing but little bumps in the road in the whole scheme of things, and then life is back to normal. But what about ongoing negative stresses that threaten your livelihood? That is the type of stress many farmers in the region are experiencing right now, and it can have a huge impact on their mental health.

“The farm becomes a member of the family. It’s been in the family for generations and, in a sense, the farm is often the longest ‘living member’ of the family as it goes back generations,” says Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University extension family science specialist. “When that ‘family member’ is perceived to be at risk, that’s very stressful. Farmers have a sense of a generational legacy that is very deep and meaningful and they are legitimately proud of that.”

This year is the latest in a string of bad seasons. Farmers are facing low prices, high input costs, trade uncertainty and a wet harvest. There’s always help and hope, but it’s important to know the warning signs of more significant mental health challenges so you can get that help when you need it.

“Be aware when you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re stomach is often upset, you’re experiencing frequent headaches or backaches, are highly irritable, or are withdrawing from social interactions,” Brotherson says. ‘These are all normal responses to stress, but just like any health concern you need to get it checked and get access to support that is going to be helpful for you.”

Brotherson likens the signals of anxiety, depression and stress to that of a dashboard on your equipment. You depend on your equipment for your farm’s most critical tasks, so it’s important to pay attention to its dashboard. If warning signals alert you to potential trouble, you need to perform the maintenance or make the repairs so it will be in good working condition when you need it. It’s tempting to ignore the signals, but wisdom suggests that the wear and tear that’s occurring needs to be checked and it’s the same with your health. Farmers, too, must pay attention to their dashboards and ensure their health is in good working condition so they’re poised to pursue the future of their operations. 

“Depression is like any other medical condition and it is a medical condition,” Brotherson says. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign you’re experiencing stress and it’s very treatable.”

Over the last 20 years, suicide rates have increased substantially in the U.S., and North Dakota has ranked at the top.

“Suicide rates increased by 58% in the last two decades,” Brotherson says. “That’s the highest of any other state in the nation, and a substantial portion of that is happening in our rural communities.”

Engaging in practices like exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, talking with a counselor and getting support from friends, neighbors and the faith community are all helpful in managing depression, anxiety and stress and minimizing their effects. There are also many free and affordable, confidential and easy-to-access resources that provide help, often from people who have experienced farming. 

If you’re a farmer who is feeling hopeless, depressed, anxious or overwhelmed you are not alone. Please reach out for help today.

ND Regional Human Service Centers counseling: https://www.nd.gov/dhs/locations/regionalhsc/

Abound Counseling at LSSND in-person and telehealth counseling: 701-223-1510 or lssnd.org/aboundcounseling 

MN Farm & Rural helpline: 833-600-2670 x 1

SD Farm & Rural helpline: 800-691-4336

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