Out of the shadows: Put operator mental health on the to-do list

For a list of mental health resources in the region and nationally, click here. FARGO, N.D. -- Most farmers and ranchers have lists of chores they want to get done. But rarely do they remember to put caring for the most important asset on their o...

Mental and emotional stress can make it difficult to continue making decisions to run a farm. Experts recommend making health a priority as a farm management strategy. (Erin Brown/Grand Vale Creative)

For a list of mental health resources in the region and nationally, click here.

FARGO, N.D. - Most farmers and ranchers have lists of chores they want to get done. But rarely do they remember to put caring for the most important asset on their operations on their lists, says Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension family science specialist.

"On that list, the first and most important thing needs to be the care of their own health and the people around them," he says. "You can take care of your operation, but taking care of yourself is essential to being able to take care of your operation."

Brotherson was raised on a ranch, so he knows the stresses that can come with agriculture. Farming and ranching generally rank in the top 10 for most stressful occupations, but right now, with low commodity prices, high input costs, poor weather and global strife, operators are dealing with a "pileup of additional stressors," Brotherson says.


Sean Brotherson

That "pileup" has led to many to sound the alarm on the mental and emotional health of farmers and ranchers. While the data is hard to nail down, suicides among farmers and ranchers are believed to be far higher than in the population as a whole. And along with concerns about suicide are concerns about the overall well-being of the nation's farmers and ranchers.

Part of the problem, Alyssa Schultz says, is that farmers often don't want to feel that they have weaknesses or that they can't handle the work they have to do. Many of them have stoic natures and tend to keep to themselves, even when they recognize they're having problems, she says.

Schultz knows that firsthand. In addition to being the crisis services supervisor for the Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response Program for Clay, Ottertail and Wilkin counties in western Minnesota, she farms with her husband Derek.

Not only do many farmers resist asking for help, she says, but, similar to CEOs and other people with large workloads, they resist taking even a small amount of time to care for themselves.

Alyssa Schultz

"It's really hard for me to convince them that they have 10 extra minutes," Alyssa Schultz says.

But taking that opportunity to care for themselves can be the difference between success on the farm or further struggle, Brotherson says.

"Your ability to function as a farm or ranch operator is highly dependent on your health," he says.


Stressful life

Derek Schultz describes himself as a "self-made farmer." His dad farmed when Derek was young and worked for other farmers.

Derek Schultz

"It's always been in my blood," he says.

He and Alyssa raise small grains and alfalfa on rented land. The stresses, Derek Schultz says, are many.

"Timing, weather, prices," he lists. "In my area, there is a lot of competition that can really weigh in on the rest of the perspective."

For him, the difficult farming environment has allowed him to feel some freedom from trying to be "perfect" on his farm. Instead, he knows he can't control everything. But for others, the conditions can make lingering issues worse.

Michelle Erickson-Jones farms in Broadview, Mont., and has spoken openly about her mental health struggles. She was diagnosed with postpartum depression after the birth of her second son and more recently has been struggling with feelings of anxiety. The low prices and the late spring haven't helped.


"It just compounds," she says.

It's not that other occupations don't have stresses; it's that farming and ranching can become so much a part of a person's identity that the stresses don't end when work is done for the day.

"I myself have punched the clock, and I did that for many years until the cards all lined up and I was able to farm on my own. If you're working at a factory, when the bell rings, that's it. You're done. You don't worry about that place until you're back there," Derek Schultz explains.

On the farm, that to-do list sticks with you, he says.

Even so, stepping away from the farm can be "almost overwhelming" - even with a wife who works in the mental health field issuing regular reminders about the importance of doing so, Derek Schultz says.

"It is very difficult for farmers to detach," he says. "Even the 10 minutes a day thing. It's just hard to get that detached."

Michelle Erickson-Jones

"With farming, it's really hard to find that self care, because there's never time," Alyssa Schultz says.


For Erickson-Jones, finding a treatment provider for her anxiety has been a compounding factor. Broadview is only 30 miles from Billings, Mont., which has two major medical centers and many health care providers. Even so, of the first five places she called seeking help, two never called her back and three weren't taking new patients. She knows she has other options in Billings; she worries, though, about people in even more rural areas who are farther removed from health care or those for whom those five calls would become overwhelming.

Seeking balance

Brotherson has a lot of helpful analogies when speaking of farm stress. Perhaps the most apt is that if a warning light went off on the tractor, the smart choice would be to stop the tractor, find the problem and deal with it. Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, trouble communicating, suicidal feelings and other feelings that something isn't right shouldn't be hidden away as weaknesses, he says. They should be investigated and treated.

"It just means it's a warning signal that their mental and emotional health is certainly being affected in a major way, and they need to take care of themselves and they need to access resources that are helpful to them," he says.

The first step he suggests is getting a health checkup. That will provide a baseline of not only physical health concerns but also mental and emotional health. A health care provider can refer a patient on to other services if necessary.

Next, Brotherson has two main recommendations: getting regular physical exercise and connecting socially with other people.


Exercise can seem unnecessary to some farmers and ranchers who spend their days on physically taxing work. But Brotherson says many people find that a vigorous walk or engaging in a sport can be a good way to let go of the struggles of the farm.


"Physical exercise of some type is really important as a stress management strategy that almost everybody can implement," he says.

Social connection also is key. Having several people to talk to, either about the stresses faced or about topics completely unconnected to the farm, can provide a relief. Those conversations shouldn't be just an occasional thing.

"Try to take the opportunity to connect with somebody socially every day," Brotherson stresses. He adds that having people in one's life to whom you're accountable, like a spouse or friend who issue reminders about healthy decisions, can be helpful.

Alyssa Schultz explains that the Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response Program is a free program through the Minnesota Department of Human Services that seeks to help people find resources for their mental health problems while keeping them safe in their homes. Her team and others across the state respond 24 hours per day to calls for help.

While they work to line people up with further resources, whether it's counseling, psychiatric care or other services, the mobile mental health crisis teams also act as a bridge until the person can get lined up with the right services.

During that bridge time, Alyssa Schultz and others provide social connection for patients and work with the patients on methods of self-care and building skills to help them cope with their feelings.

For farmers, Alyssa Schultz stresses the importance of taking 10 minutes out of the day to do something that isn't farming. Read a book. Go for a walk. Meditate.

"What that really does is, it gives your mind a break," she says, noting that strategy isn't just for people actively struggling with mental health concerns. "It's everybody who can benefit from those things."


She suggests taking time every day to think of three good things about the day; the practice has been shown to be as helpful to some people as taking an antidepressant when done for at least 21 days, she says.

For people who have displayed suicidal tendencies, the crisis response team makes safety plans, which include who the patient can call and where they can go when they're struggling. They also work on planning day-to-day activities. For farmers, that can be difficult.

"Because with farming, you have a to-do list that's a million miles long, and you're never going to get it completed, because by the time you get all of the corn in the ground you've got something else to do. So there's never really a day that you have where you feel accomplished," Alyssa Schultz explains.

So, she asks them to plan at least one thing they can finish every day, even if it's just a small project. Having something to check off the list can lead one to feel accomplished and less overwhelmed by the things that didn't get done.

A driving range is a stress reliever at Erickson Farm in Broadview, Mont.

Finding stress relief isn't the same for everyone. At Erickson Farm, there is a tee box and driving range by a barn for use during breaks, Erickson-Jones says. For Derek Schultz, family suppers and the involvement of his wife and 2-year-old daughter on the farm keep him going.

"Having the family out in the field really reminds you what you're doing it for," he says.

When Erickson-Jones first received treatment for her postpartum depression, she felt like a weight was taken off of her shoulders. She wants people to know that mental health problems and emotional turmoil can be treated.

"You're not supposed to feel like this all the time," she says.

Brotherson says that's an important point to make.

"These problems aren't new," he says. "There are a lot of people who have successfully dealt with and managed them before, and that means that you can, too."

With better mental and emotional health, farmers and ranchers will be better able to make good decisions for their operations. That means putting health priorities on the top of the to-do list has a good return on investment, Brotherson says.

"We need to prioritize our own health, including ... not just our physical health but our mental health to be able to work towards the wellbeing of our farm or ranch operation," he says.


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