The mental health of young farmers is often overlooked

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Mental health has come to the fore in recent years, including the mental health of farmers and others involved in agriculture.

“Agriculture is a particularly stressful industry. Individual growers are forced to contend with conditions that are completely beyond their control,” says Josie Rudolphi, PhD, assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Illinois. in Urbana-Champaign. “We know that all of these unique stressors are associated with symptoms of mental health issues. The risk of suicide is higher among farmers than among the rest of the population.”

Rudolphi says it’s important to recognize how interpersonal relationships among farm family members affect mental health. Family relationships contribute to different types of stress depending on a person’s position in the hierarchy.

“Much of what we know has been adult-focused,” she says. “There are two million young people who live or work on a farm. They often do agricultural work, are present in the environment and experience these stressful things, but have been absent from research.

That’s why Rudolphi and the University of Illinois recently conducted the Farm Adolescent and Adult Mental Health Study, funded by the National Children’s Center for Rural Agricultural Health and Safety. Farm operators across the country, their spouses and their children aged 13 to 17 were invited to complete an online survey.

What was learned

Rudolphi says more than 60% of farm teens screened had self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. More than 10% of respondents said they had experienced moderately severe to severe symptoms.

The study asked participants about different types of anxiety. About 60% reported panic disorder or significant somatic symptoms, 45% generalized anxiety disorder, 68% separation anxiety disorder, 39% social anxiety disorder, and 50% school avoidance.

More information

Jana Davidson is a program manager for the Progressive Agriculture Foundation (PAF), overseeing the Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program. PAF hosted a roundtable focused on the mental health of rural and agricultural youth in late 2019. Rudolphi was one of the panelists.

Roundtable participants discussed additional stressors that young farmers face, in addition to their urban counterparts, including:

  • Bad weather and natural disasters

  • Commodity prices and consequences for the financial situation of the family

  • Long working hours and lack of sleep

  • Pressure to complete tasks on time

  • More responsibilities

  • Negative interactions with those who do not understand or appreciate the agricultural industry

  • The pressure to continue the family farm

  • Inability to have extracurricular activities due to farm responsibilities

Following the roundtable, and after a brief hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PAF is currently implementing a mental wellness and stress management program in its Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program. “We looked at our program and emphasized safety, but not mental health,” Davidson said.

The PAF team has created age-appropriate resources that can be implemented with other activities at Safety Day events. The program aims to help young participants understand stress and their emotions, make the connection between mental and physical health, break the stigma around mental health and identify coping strategies. Participants are sent home with additional resources.

Safety Day activities include kids making their own stress ball, keeping a diary and seeing how many balls each child can juggle. Balloons represent stressors. “It’s not that hard with one or two, but very hard with three or four,” Davidson said. “Our takeaway is that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Children are visual, so it helps bring them to life.”

What can parents do?

Davidson recommends these easy-to-implement strategies for parents:

Role modeling: She says the most important thing parents can do is model good behavior when it comes to looking after their own mental health. When kids see their parents taking care of themselves, adopting coping strategies like journaling or yoga, being kind, taking breaks from social media and technology, asking for help, and sharing their stories , it encourages them to do the same. “I hope we can take better care of our own mental health and that the young people around us who look up to us will too,” she says.

Peach and stone: Every day, all family members can share the best (fishing) and worst (core) moments of their day. She says actively listening to your children’s responses and openly sharing yours will help build trust and open the lines of communication.

9 Vital Minutes: The most important minutes of the day for children are the three minutes when they first wake up, the three minutes when they get home from school, and the three minutes just before bedtime. “Ask them questions, be there for them, and just be present,” Davidson says.

Watch out for social media: Social media means that children today can be bullied beyond the school halls. Every time they look at their cell phones or computers, they may face a bully or at least added pressure to look and act a certain way. Limiting phone use before bed is key, Davidson says. “Remember those vital nine minutes,” she says. “If social media is their last three minutes before bed and there’s bullying or unrealistic expectations, it can be hard to fall asleep after that.”

Rudolphi agrees with these strategies. “We found a significant correlation between parental and adolescent health. This shows that we need parents to model health coping strategies, including self-care and other valuable coping strategies. “, she says. “I think we can all recognize the mental health crisis we are seeing in young people, so it’s so important to have programs like what PAF is developing.”

Organize a safety day

Progressive Agriculture Safety Days are one-day events that teach school-aged children lessons that can help keep them safe on the farm. Events can take place in schools or elsewhere in the community, and can be private or public. Participants are divided into small groups, which rotate between stations where they participate in different lessons and activities.

In addition to mental health, topics include ATV safety, first aid, animal safety, PTO safety, hidden hazards and tractor safety. Learn more about the project and sign up to volunteer or host your own Safety Day.

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