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Iowa State University Extension expands mental health outreach for farmers

Farm Stress Packets will be made available to farmers in all 99 counties of Iowa.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Iowa State University Extension will be expanding their mental health outreach programs for farmers and rural communities.

Iowa State University Extension is expanding its mental health outreach to a particularly-vulnerable population: farmers.

The organization is using a $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to make mental health resources more accessible for farming and rural communities in the upcoming year.

Farmers across the state can access free programming onsuicide prevention and mental health first aid each month. Johnson said the classes are specifically designed to address occupational stressors of those in the agricultural industry.

“We want people to be aware of those occupational stressors, as well as rural barriers, and know how those can add to distress if somebody is already kind of at a breaking point or at risk for a mental health challenge.” said Demi Johnson, program coordinator for behavioral programs at ISU Extension.

“If we can help one person, it's worth it.”
Norlan Hinke, program specialist

Factors such as weather uncertainty, long hours, isolation make farmers vulnerable to suffering from poor mental health. Farmers are at a greater risk of suicide than average, according to a study by the Centers of Disease Control Prevention.

Johnson said the organization wants to address the disproportionate impact on farmers by ensuring each agricultural producer has the access they need to support.

“Maybe there is just one hospital within 30 minutes of your home and you know the physician,” Johnson said. “So if you're experienced substance use challenges or suicidal thoughts, there's this stigma around seeking help. There's that extra barrier that maybe folks in urban parts of Iowa don't necessarily experience.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put an additional strain on mental health for farmers. In a survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau, the majority of farmers said their mental health worsened amid COVID-19.

 A survey by the American Farm Bureau showed that many farmers felt the coronavirus pandemic poorly impacted their mental health.
American Farm Bureau
A survey by the American Farm Bureau showed that many farmers felt the coronavirus pandemic poorly impacted their mental health.

Dr. Michael Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer in southwest Iowa, said the added uncertainty around access to equipment and fluctuating infection rates puts more pressure on an already stressful job.

“We don't control the weather, or farm prices. But we can control how we manage ourselves and handle stress,” Rosmann said.

Extension agents will be using the grant award to better train those who interact with farmers the most on how to recognize signs of distress. The organization will provide informational materials to rural pastors, physicians and bankers in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

ISU Extension program specialist Norlan Hinke said outreach to community members is vital to addressing mental hardships in rural areas.

"There's that extra barrier that maybe folks in urban parts of Iowa don't necessarily experience."
Demi Johnson, program coordinator

“They have the most opportunity to identify if somebody really is having those personal issues, whether it’s depression or loneliness,” he said. “It’s about making those people more comfortable identifying and dealing with those situations.”

Rosmann said it’s important for farmers to talk with people who understand the unique stressors of their industry. He said giving the tools to people who farmers already trust can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health – one of the greatest barriers.

“We haven't completely eliminated the negative stigma that farmers have toward seeking assistance with mental health or behavioral health issues. It's going to take more than just a few years for that to occur,” he said.

The resources distributed will give farmers a better sense of free telehealth optionsavailable to them if they have limited access to in-person counseling. It will also address how to get support without health insurance, for those who may be struggling financially.

But, most of all, Hinke hopes the mental health programs can save a life. Or, at the very least, bring some solace to agriculture producers battling loneliness or depression.

“We're trying to get it to help anybody who might have need,” he said. “If we can help one person, it's worth it.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.