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Behavioral Health Brief: The Harvest of Stress in Rural America
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 4 P. 28

Farmer stress can lead to dire situations—but a Georgia social worker and her colleagues are determined to make meaningful change.

The farming profession is challenging in many ways, and farmers may experience an emotional toll as a result of a number of factors. This is evident in CDC findings showing that rural populations have a significantly higher suicide rate than that of urban populations. More specifically, one study showed that the suicide rate of farmers in Georgia is 3.5 times higher than that of the general population. These staggering numbers inspired Anna Scheyett, a professor in both the University of Georgia (UGA) School of Social Work and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Extension and Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication, to pursue further research and seek potential avenues for instituting change.

Much of her work has been under the umbrella of UGA Cooperative Extension’s Rural Georgia: Growing Stronger Initiative, which is committed to developing resources for farmers and farm families to manage stress, stay healthy, and thrive. A recent interdisciplinary collaborative project on farmer and farm family stress has also been supported by research preseed funding from the UGA Office of Research and the Office of the Provost.

Scheyett has been working with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the UGA Extension faculty since 2019 to gather data from farming communities.

“What we’ve found is that many of the stressors that farmers experience are outside of their control,” Scheyett explains.

“Weather, commodity prices, input prices, labor, broken equipment—they all contribute to farm stress. Farmers are very independent and self-reliant—they are ‘I’m going to make it work’ kind of people. But when they are confronted with these factors that are out of their control, that’s a struggle.”

A National Rural Health Association Policy Brief demonstrated that major factors contributing to farmer suicide risk included financial and social pressures. In the farming community, there’s often a stigma associated with seeking mental health care, and some rural communities view anxiety and depression as a private matter rather than a health issue.

“Farmers do not want to be a burden on their family and often feel as though they just have to figure this out on their own,” Scheyett says. “There’s also an identity piece to this. Farming is who they are as a person—it stems beyond just a profession.”

That means when the farm isn’t doing well, it’s more than just a “job,” Scheyett explains.

Making Connections
Looking into data specifically related to Georgia in the National Violent Death Reporting System, Scheyett’s research also revealed that a number of these farmers had given signs that they were at risk of suicide.

“The problem is that this culture is not always good about picking up on those signs,” Scheyett adds. “So, we have to also consider the farmer’s support system and how they might play a role in helping farmers at risk.”

Farmers are very independent people. However, when Scheyett and her colleagues surveyed farmers, they found that nearly three-quarters said they trust their spouses most. These are the people they’d be willing to talk to in times of stress.

“This made it clear that we also had to look closely at these relationships and how we could support the spouse,” Scheyett says.

Through their work, they also found that the most viable way to reach farmers would be to tie-in resources with an existing event. Survey respondents indicated that they prefer to get their information from sources they already trust. Plus, there’s a matter of time, Scheyett adds.

“For farmers, time is one of the most valuable commodities,” she continues. “We realized we are not going to get them to attend any extra events. So, we had to fold our programming into something that they were already attending.”

That might include production meetings that are held by county Extension offices across Georgia. These meetings are an opportunity for members of the agricultural community to get the latest science-based recommendations on growing their crops.

“We were able to work in some education on stress, presented by a clinician whose family are Georgia farmers, and also have a local practitioner who could perform blood pressure checks in the back of the room,” Scheyett says. “When we talked about stress in terms of things like blood pressure, it was more acceptable because that’s a health issue.”

In addition to working information into existing meetings, Scheyett says she also created a blog, Thriving on the Farm, which farmers and their families can read at their leisure—and in the privacy of their homes. Scheyett says this might be a way to reach those that wouldn’t otherwise be willing to talk about their concerns.

Scheyett and her colleagues have participated in production meetings in 12 counties to date. Farmers receive a folder of information from the Rural Georgia: Growing Stronger initiative, which provides information on wellness, health, stress, and mental health.

Some of her colleagues also provide mental health first aid training with Extension agents so that they can have conversations with farmers, too. It’s often a matter of asking the right questions and knowing what to look for as far as warning signs that a farmer is struggling, Scheyett says.

“It’s important to recognize that this is an interdisciplinary undertaking,” she continues. “This work has brought together social work with public health, family and consumer sciences, agriculture economics, Cooperative Extension, and communications. In many ways, social work is the linchpin in keeping everything together, as we are skilled at making connections and building relationships.”

Furthering the Effort
While Scheyett’s work focuses on Georgia, there are farming communities across the country and lots of work to be done. She notes there are others spearheading efforts in different states, and some social work scholars and practitioners focusing on rural issues—but there are certainly many more opportunities for social workers to get involved. She’d love to see more focus, for example, on rural work in higher education.

“I think that we often have this implicit bias that social work is urban work,” she says. “But there is such a great need in the rural community.”

A key to success has been truly getting to know local farmers. For the last three years, Scheyett has traveled to the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia, to immerse herself in the culture. “I’m there collecting data but also just getting to know the people that we are trying to reach,” she says. “It is so important that our messaging is matching who people are.”

According to Scheyett, social workers likely can play an instrumental role in developing solutions. She recommends connecting with Cooperative Extension. Part of land grant universities, Cooperative Extension Service has the role of “extending” the reach of the university through translation and practical application of research-based information to communities across a state. Local Extension agents are trusted members of the community, and Scheyett sees them as ideal partners and allies in rural communities.

“That’s the best starting place,” she says. “They have one in nearly every county, and they already have relationships with farmers. It’s important to know that coming in as an outsider is not easy in the farm community—and we’ve found it’s important to have partners. It really has to be interdisciplinary work. It can’t be social work alone. But together we can make a difference.”

— Lindsey Getz is an award-winning freelance writer in Royersford, Pennsylvania.