Guest Columnist

Farmers need a helping hand

Walker Homestead is seen in rural Iowa City on Sunday, July 26, 2020. The farm was conceived as a family-friendly vineya
Walker Homestead is seen in rural Iowa City on Sunday, July 26, 2020. The farm was conceived as a family-friendly vineyard where people can learn about small-scale agriculture and food processing while enjoying freshly harvested meals. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Times are tough in farm country. Unfair trade practices, low commodity prices, severe weather events, and farm income projected to decrease $10.9 billion this year all add up to a perfect storm of challenges.

With the onset of COVID-19, another huge set of problems has been piled on top of the ones farmers were already facing, causing even higher levels of stress and uncertainty. Restaurant and school closures practically shut down the food service industry overnight, disrupting food supply chains and leaving many farmers with no customers for their products. Farmers have been forced to dump milk and plow under crops, and some have even faced the heartbreaking decision to euthanize animals because of plant closures.

Hard times are nothing new to farmers — whether in a global pandemic or otherwise. They are strong, self-sufficient, and resilient. These qualities make for good farmers, but in times of extreme stress these same characteristics can make it difficult for farmers to ask for help when they need it, and the consequences can be tragic.

Farmers need to know that sometimes it’s OK not to be OK, and that there are times when you need to be able to reach out to someone who can offer empathy and support. In the face of overwhelming circumstances, it’s critically important to be able to understand the causes of chronic stress and to learn effective methods for coping.

That’s why the American Farm Bureau Federation, in partnership with Farm Credit and National Farmers Union, worked with Michigan State University Extension to develop an online training program to help farmers, their families and neighbors identify and cope with stress. It provides participants with the skills to learn the warning signs of stress and suicide, reduce stigma related to mental health concerns and connect farmers and ranchers with appropriate mental health resources.

Building on the success of the program since its rollout last fall, the training is now available to anyone who would like to learn more about how to recognize the signs of stress and begin a dialogue to bring hope and help to a family member, friend or neighbor. In addition, Farm Bureau has been active in addressing opioid misuse in rural America, which sometimes goes hand in hand with mental health challenges, and helping farmers and their families get connected to treatment resources for loved ones struggling with an addiction.

Earlier this year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy teamed up with Farm Bureau and 17 other rural stakeholder organizations to release a Rural Community Action Guide that gives rural leaders recommended action steps and promising practices for combating addiction in their community. Last month, the Trump administration built on that work with the launch of the Rural Community Toolbox, an online clearinghouse of data and resources to combat drug addiction in rural America. Most recently, the administration has taken bold steps with policy flexibility, technical assistance, and funding to expand access to care through telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to weigh heavily on farmers and ranchers, both physically and emotionally, these collective actions will be increasingly important in helping farmers manage stress. Beyond the actions taken, however, it is critical that each of us do whatever we can to reduce stigma in rural America surrounding mental health and substance misuse. Farmers are known for their resilience and strength — but sometimes, being strong requires asking for help.

If you need help or know someone who does, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or connect with the Lifeline Chat. For help finding treatment for an addiction, go to www.findtreatment.gov.

Jim Carroll is the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Zippy Duvall is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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