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Purdue Extension: Championing Mental Health on the Farm

February 1, 2021
Two men walk in a field.

Farming is a stressful occupation. Farmers own and operate private small businesses that rely on unpredictable markets influenced by government trade policies, unreliable and extreme weather conditions and ever-changing input costs. Since 2013, net farm income has declined by 50% nationally and, like other industries, the farmers have been burdened by the stress of the past year. Add in traditional negative stigmas associated with seeking help and lack of health insurance or mental health resources, farmers and other agriculture workers need more support and education than ever before.

Purdue Extension educators, who witnessed the devastating effects of poor mental health awareness in Indiana farming communities, are on a mission to connect rural communities with the right resources. In January 2019, a group of 11 educators formed the Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team after attending a Farm Stress Management Workshop hosted by Michigan State University Extension. Twenty educators are now trained in farm stress management and certified in Mental Health First Aid, another mental health program taught by Purdue Extension-Health and Human Sciences.

“The Purdue Farm Stress Team believes the most important farm assets are farmers, farm families and farm employees. We are dedicated to helping take care of the most important farm asset – you,” said Tonya Short, Purdue Extension Health and Human Sciences educator in Knox County and farm stress team member.

The team has since facilitated 52 in-person programs reaching 1,550 people and four virtual programs reaching 267 participants nationally. They have also launched a podcast, Tools for Today’s Farmer, a website and a social media presence.

Doug Leman, Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) Executive Director, knows from first-hand experience how overwhelming farm stress can become. Leman was a dairy producer for 40 years before selling the dairy in 2010 and beginning at IDP. Selling the cows was an emotional experience for him and his family and a decision that was accompanied by depression and isolation.

“I understand how people can get to the point of depression because of the feeling of helplessness. You feel like you are on your own and that there’s nobody else that is going through what you’re going through and now I realize that there are so many dealing with those things too.”

Leman worked closely with Purdue Extension to bring a farm stress workshop to IDP. He felt it was important to bring awareness to mental health on the farm and to be open about how stress is affecting farmers and farm families.

In late 2020, the farm stress team joined a 12-state initiative that was awarded a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant to create and expand stress management, mental health resources and services to agriculture producers in the North Central Region. With the grant support, the team is finding new ways to collaborate with state agriculture and health agencies and was recently invited to help plan a new national suicide prevention hotline.

“Our team’s mission is to make sure farmers, farm families and rural needs are represented in new and expanding mental health resources,” said Short.

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