Mental Health and Farm Families

Nov 29, 2022

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Episode Description

Many say that farming is a calling and there’s a lot to love about a career in agriculture. But the all-consuming and isolated nature of life on the farm and so many factors out of the grower’s control can cause an incredible amount of stress and mental hardship. Not only for farmers themselves but also for their loved ones. In this episode, we talk with Florida Peanut Producers Executive Director Ken Barton; grower Lamont Bridgeforth; and Knesha Rose-Davison, the public health and equity director at Agrisafe.

Note: The language used in this article is the language that those most impacted by it prefer. As a disclaimer, the content discussed

The holidays are an exciting time of year, but for some it’s a time where they struggle with their mental wellness. According to a National Alliance on Mental Illness study, 64% of people with mental illness report the holidays make their conditions worse. With farming already being well documented as one of the most stressful and hazardous occupations, it’s important to have these conversations around mental health.

Knesha Rose-Davison is the public health and equity director at Agrisafe. She comes from an agricultural family in the Mississippi Delta Arkansas area. According to Knesha, mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well being.

“Mental health, it's a part of our health,” Knesha said. “And oftentimes, it's kind of a thing that's kind of tucked away. Nobody wants to talk about but it really, if we're not doing well, mentally, it can impact our health and it's all connected…It's part of your overall health, if you will.”

Mental Health is an increasing concern in the farming community. According to a study by the CDC, the suicide rate for male “farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers” was double that of the general population in 2012.

“And I think a lot of studies contributed to uncontrollable factors like the volatile markets, trade, natural disasters, you know, we're dealing with hurricanes and, and drought and flooding, and even the pandemic,” Knesha said. “So, these are all factors that we really don't have control over as individuals, and it could really play on our mental health because we like to be in control. We like to have structure. But unfortunately, in agriculture is just so many things that are outside of the producer’s control.”

For those in the peanut industry, and especially for our peanut farmers in Florida, Ken Barton is a familiar name and face. He’s been the executive director of the Florida Peanut Producers Association (FPPA) for over 20 years and is also a peanut farmer. At the beginning of 2022, FPPA suffered a tragic loss when their office manager, Sherry Saunders, completed suicide.

“She knew that she was having difficulties with mental health, and she reached out to the medical community and her family doctor and, and she was currently undergoing medical treatment and other forms of therapy,” Ken said. “And nothing just seemed to work. Her condition just got progressively worse. And I guess it's the worst-case scenario and, and it ended in tragedy, it was, it was a suicide. And it left her family, her friends, coworkers and all of her acquaintances, just wondering, you know, how could something like this happen? And what can I do as a friend or family member to, you know, maybe prevent this?”

Ken said that after the news hit the community, many farmers called their office and shared their stories with him about how they were going through something similar. Through these calls and conversations, Ken realized it’s important to remove the stigma around mental health.

“I would just encourage farmers to realize that when you think something's different is going on with you, whether it's emotional or are a little more stressed than normal, confide in your family, and your friends or coworkers,” Ken said. “But especially reach out to your family doctor, to the medical community, and they can certainly direct you to the right physician to help you deal and cope with these mental health issues.”

Lamont Bridgeforth is a fifth-generation farmer from Alabama. He and his wife have a blended family with six kids, as well as 10,000 acres to manage on his farm. A few years ago, Lamont’s first wife completed suicide.

Starting in February 2016, Lamont began to travel to work on land in Mississippi. While coming home each weekend, he began to notice small changes in his wife, but by August he knew something was very wrong.

“She had gotten to the point she wouldn't get her hair done anymore,” Lamont said. “She didn't cook anymore, because she liked to cook. She liked to bake. And, you know, people loved her food. So, she wasn't doing that anymore…She would shower or bathe every day, and she wasn't doing that every day.”

Though Lamont had seen the warning signs and took action, he wishes there has been more open and honest conversations regarding mental wellness. The biggest thing Lamont wants other farmers to know is that it’s important to be honest with yourself and know when to get help.

“Let me say this for farmers, I think that we have to do self-introspection,” Lamont said. “And we have to put our pride to the side. Sometimes a farmer might have to look at himself and say, I need help. And try to try to get some help before it goes too far.”

According to Knesha, there are red flags and warning signs to be on the lookout for with mental health. Some of the many early warning signs include changes in their eating or sleep habits, pulling away from social activities, increasing their smoking or drinking habits, feeling confused or forgetful, and being generally edgy. While everyone has mood swings, those experiencing may experience these feelings for longer periods than normal. Some red flags include losing interest in things they once enjoyed, engaging in risk or impulsive behavior, and sleeping all the time or barely sleeping.

Knesha says it’s important to have conversations around mental health and emphasize that these conversations should be lead with care and compassion. She even offered up a few examples of how to approach the topic.

“Maybe you're a person that had kept things really tidy, and now things are kind of scattered about,” Knesha said. “So, you know, something like, I noticed your yard is a little unkempt. And I was wondering how you're doing is everything, okay? Again, leading with that care and compassion…Something like, I just want to check in and see how things are going for you, that can really kind of start a conversation again, based on your relationship with the person.”

Agrisafe offers an upcoming monthly training called Question, Persuade, Refer, that helps with crisis conversations and is built specifically for the ag community. There are an abundance of resources available, which are all included on our website, including anonymous hotline numbers, crisis support websites specific to ag communities and more.

Note: If you need help or would like guidance on how to talk to someone you know about their mental wellness, feel free to call the National Suicide Crisis Lifeline anonymously at 988. You can also speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about these issues. While this is a tough topic, improving the health of peanut farmers and their families is important for the future of peanut production and to keep farmers in farming.