Building a common language

Farmers face stressors, barriers to mental health

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MARSHFIELD, Wis. — Dairy farmers often face unique stressors that are not understood by those outside the agricultural community. This can make it difficult for some farmers to feel understood when they reach for help.

In a presentation during the central Wisconsin Farm Stress Summit, “Cutting Through the Manure to Get to the Roots of the Stress,” University of Wisconsin-Extension Marathon County educator Heather Schlesser spoke to members of both the medical and agricultural communities Jan. 26 at the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield about stressors farmers face.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture was conducted in 2021 using a focus group to learn what farmers perceived as their greatest challenges and what prevented them from reaching out for help.

Three focus groups were established. Ten participants from across the state, six females and four males which included eight who had been farming for more than 20 years, were included in the study. Five dairy farmers participated in the discussion.

“The objectives we had were to ask the participants to explain their farming subculture,” Schlesser said. “We wanted to know if they felt they had a subculture different from the general population, and if so, what was it? We also asked them to discuss resources that were available to farmers for farm stress. What did they know about, and what did they feel was available to them? We also wanted to identify how they wanted to be communicated with, as farmers.”

The focus groups were conducted via video calls, using the anonymous call-in feature.

“We wanted to make sure that the people who participated in the focus groups felt like they really had the ability to share without being singled out,” Schlesser said.

Schlesser said all the sessions were recorded, with transcripts being put into a data analysis program, allowing them to look for commonalities.

Using literature, Schlesser identified common stressors throughout the global agricultural community to compare if Wisconsin farmers perceived similar or different stress to their counterparts.

“We wanted to identify if our farmers felt the same way as farmers in California or Iowa or Europe,” Schlesser said.

Stressors Schlesser identified through literature included financial difficulties; time and workload pressures; unpredictability of the agricultural industry; detrimental weather events; interpersonal conflicts with family and non-family; isolation and the process of farm transition.

“These were all stressors our farmers could all relate to,” Schlesser said. “It wasn’t just in literature. It was what we were seeing here in Wisconsin, but they identified some additional stressors.”

During the discussions, the data analysis program coded 81 comments as stressors, Schlesser said.

“We had additional stressors that had not been previously identified,” Schlesser said. “One of those was management of the farm. What they meant by that was the stress of, ‘Who will manage the farm if I’m unable to do the chores?’ No one else had said that. It was getting at why don’t they seek help. One of their stressors is they can’t, because who will manage the farm if they’re away?”

Schlesser said the focus group delved deeper into the stresses related to financial management than what had been found in the literature.

“This was related more to the stress of making the right decision to make the farm work financially,” Schlesser said. “‘If I make decision A, will it make the farm better, more profitable? Or will it end up collapsing the farm, losing it for the next generation?’”

The pressure to continually improve and expand weighed on the minds of the focus group, Schlesser said.

“This referred to the pressure of becoming more efficient, consolidating, improving and increasing their acres and livestock numbers,” Schlesser said. “We’ve seen that trend in agriculture, to constantly get bigger and bigger, and they see that as a stressor, the pressure to do that in order to make ends meet.”

Not all the stressors facing the group of farmers were connected to the farm.

“We classified it as ‘just life’ — the stress of just being a human, a parent,” Schlesser said. “The everyday life of running your kids to sporting events or after-school activities. To me, it was kind of eye-opening. They don’t just have the pressure of running the business. They have the stress of being normal humans as well.”

Schlesser said the next question was to determine what the panel saw as barriers to seeking help.

“We know we have these stressors, we know we need help, so why are we not getting that help that we need?” Schlesser said. “The largest barrier they identified was time and timing. This referred to the farmers’ inability to get away from the farm due to the workload and the time pressure. They don’t take the time away to visit a healthcare provider.”

Schlesser said self-reliance, disconnect and stigma were identified as other barriers to seeking care.

“There was a feeling that healthcare providers didn’t understand agriculture enough to genuinely empathize with the farmers seeking help,” Schlesser said. “We need to build a common language to help break down that barrier of disconnect.”

Schlesser said understanding how farmers think can be difficult for healthcare professionals.

“They want you to meet them where they are, mentally,” Schlesser said. “They are constantly thinking about farm life, the next chore that has to get done, even if they are sitting in the doctor’s office. They feel healthcare providers do not understand that farming is a 24/7 occupation. They can’t turn it off. They can’t leave it.”

That understanding plays into developing a level of trust that farmers need with their healthcare provider, Schlesser said.

“A farmer sitting in your office is really a cry for help,” Schlesser said. “It’s really important to understand that even if the farmer downplays the situation, if they are sitting in your office, treat it as an emergency situation.”

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