Managing stress in an era of ag uncertainty

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series of articles that will discuss issues related to farm stress and information and resources that are available.

“We are going through some difficult times on the farm.”

Dr. Mike Rosmann, a farmer/psychologist from Harlan, spoke those words during a webinar hosted by the Iowa Farm Bureau recently.

Rosmann spoke about strategies and behavior management that can help farmers deal with stress in order to function optimally as producers of food and renewable fuels.

“Financially, there’s a lot of uncertainty about markets and now we have the added stress of a government shutdown and not sure when that may end,” he said. “But, there are things we can take charge of and one of those is our behavior.”

Rosmann said it’s important, in times of stress, to manage physical health and behavior.

“Our behaviors are something we have considerable control over,” he said.

What can be controlled?

Rosmann said there are behaviors that farmers can control, and they can get help from many people besides professional counselors and physicians.

“We can turn to (Iowa State University) extension, to people in our community, to people that we trust and who have our best interests in mind,” he said.

Why do producers and landowners care so much about their land and why does economic stress and other uncontrollable factors take such a heavy toll on farmers?

Rosmann said he likes to use the agrarian imperative theory to explain why this occurs.

The theory, according to information provided by Rosmann, is a purposeful drive to acquire the territory and resources necessary to undertake agricultural activities that lead to the production of food, fiber and renewable energy.

“It’s a plausible explanation, but it’s still only a theory,” he said. “We strive to protect our territories. We feel motivated to produce essentials for life that will allow us to feed our families, but also our communities and the larger community of people all around the world. This urge to produce essentials for life is a powerful urge and it makes our calling to be farmers, to be noble, and gives us meaning.”

“We hang on to our land at all cost. Wars have been fought over farmland.”

The agrarian imperative, Rosmann said, not only helps farmers acquire land and resources, but also sets a spot to have problems when individual behavioral characteristics come to play.

“When we feel threatened on the farm and we go to great lengths to try to protect our resources, we work extra hard,” he said. “We take off-farm jobs, we try to save money. We try to manage our time carefully. We take risks to help us make us successful farmers.”

“But at the same time, taking risks can be dangerous and can sometimes set us up to make mistakes.”

Rosmann said it’s important for producers to know how they manifest, or display, anxiety and tension as they proceed through their lives farming.

To help further understand how producers face challenging times, Rosmann said they took a look at the seven-state regional program AgriWellness Incorporated that is headquartered in Harlan and monitored 26 months of telephone calls that came into hotlines and help lines.

More than 43,000 telephone calls were logged in during that 26 month period, taken by telephone responders that were familiar with agriculture and, in the course of discussion with the caller, they were able to figure out if the person was farming, his or her role in the farming operation, why they made the telephone contact and what stressors they were going through.

Confidentiality was protected throughout the study, Rosmann said, and added that many of the people were referred for follow up counseling that was available, in many cases, free of charge through federal and state funding, grants and private resources.

“About 10,000 people were seen in counseling sessions,” he said.

Why did people contact the hotlines and help lines? And what were the diagnoses?

One of the first problems that emerges, Rosmann said, is when farmers are overly stressed. they start to quarrel with loved ones.

“We argue and blame our spouse is spending too much money or that he or she could have used their time differently or he doesn’t talk to me anymore, or if you would help around here we wouldn’t be in such tough shape,” he said. “Those are all relationship tensions that come out when we are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty.”

About 40 percent of the reasons people called the hotlines is because of relationship turmoil. Rosmann said anger, physical and verbal abuse were the most common reasons.

After the problem was diagnosed and the persons were seen by counselors, many of these problems were resolved.

“They are called adjustment disorders — that is, our anxiety and our depression go away when the stress diminishes,” he said. “Some of that had to do with how we managed stressed, but also in many cases, because farm prices improved, or the conditions that caused the stress remitted.”

Another common issue in about 11 percent of callers was anxiety — excessive worrying, the inability to sleep well, not being able to settle down.

Depression was also common.

“Depression is chronic or more long-term than anxiety,” he said. “Anxiety is a beneficial response to a threat. It gears us up to respond by working a little harder, or by scrambling to figure out what we can do.”

Rosmann said it is in the course of being anxious that people can sometimes deplete their bodies of hormones.

“These chemicals become depleted and when that occurs we become depressed,” he said. “So, that explains how anxiety turns into depression.”

He added substance misuse of some kind was an occurring problem in about 40 percent of all the cases.

“It is often the situation where farmers, both men and women, will use alcohol or other drugs to calm themselves down or to not have to think about the stressful issues or just to sleep,” he said. “Most of the time, farmers and ranchers do not misuse alcohol unless they are overly stressed.”

The study did not show many severe cases of psychiatric or mental health issues.

“We just don’t see those very often in the agricultural population because over excessive generations, these diagnoses have been called out, or eliminated from the agricultural population,” he said.

Contributors to farm stress

Rosmann said the most important stressors are those we can’t control and which threaten the loss of our farming operations.

“Often stress results from financial threats, but they may be due to other things like bad weather, disease outbreaks, personal health issues, losses of close loved ones that we depend on,” he said. “Most of us can handle two stressors simultaneously, but when we get a third stressor also occurring, our coping capacity is overwhelmed.”

Suicide within the agricultural industry

Rosmann said suicide is a particular problem among people engaged in agriculture.

“We don’t know entirely why that is the case, but it may have something to do with this very strong drive to farm successfully that I like to call the agrarian imperative,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that suicide in the United States has increased about 37 percent over the past 15 years.

That number is even higher in the agricultural community, Rosmann said, “to the point that it is the occupation that has the highest rate of suicide.”

“We are seeing more concerns about suicide currently,” he added, “especially among the most distressed farmers like dairy producers and some grain and livestock producers who are losing money in their operations.”

The suicide rate among farmers is now higher than that of returning military veterans, according to Rosmann.

What are some danger signals or excessive stress, depression and suicide?

Rosmann said to be aware of any verbalization that someone may say such as “what’s the use of trying,” or “sometimes I just feel like ending it all.”

“Those kinds of verbalizations indicated drastic hopelessness; that’s there’s nothing to look forward to,” he said. “We need to take those statements seriously. We very seldom hear such statements, but they do occur among people that want to end it as a permanent solution as to what is usually a temporary problem.”

Besides the feeling of hopelessness, another clear factor to look for is someone who says they haven’t enjoyed anything for several weeks — “I haven’t laughed for a long time,” or “nothing is fun anymore.”

“Where they are showing that loss of pleasure, that flat affect,” he said. “Where there is just a constant sulky and down feeling those can sometimes accompany someone’s deliberations to take one’s life.”

Another type of statement could be a threat such as “I’m going to shoot all of my cows and I might do it to myself.” Those statements also need to be taken seriously, according to Rosmann.

He added that a fourth key symptom to look for is what he calls the “lump in the throat phenomenon.”

“When a person says ‘I wish I could cry but I can’t’ — that’s a pretty good indication that the person is feeling numb, unhappy and stressed to the point that feeling the need to cry, but can’t do it,” he said.

Other signs to look for are people who are neglecting their common activities that they are accustomed to doing, such as missing church, not attending their children’s sporting events, not showing up to meetings or family events and pleading that they just don’t feel like attending and don’t want to.

“This avoidance is often a cover up for feeling bad about themselves,” he said. “I already mentioned the flat affect and retreating behaviors. People will say all they feel like is staying in bed with the curtains pulled all day long.”

Continue to keep an eye on those persons and neighbors you care about.

“What does their farm look like? What does their personal appearance look like?” Rosmann asked. “Are they keeping themselves groomed or letting themselves go? Are the fences not repaired when they should be? Are the pastures over-grazed because it’s an effort to have too many cattle or livestock and it has succeeded the carrying capacity?

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