The Unique Mental Health Challenges Facing Farmers and Farm Workers

The Unique Mental Health Challenges Facing Farmers and Farm Workers

There are many barriers to obtaining mental health care. It’s expensive, not always covered by insurance, and finding a therapist can be difficult. A new report from the Seattle Times says those hurdles can be even higher for people working in agriculture.

“I’m amazed at the number of suicides in my own community and in the farming community that I was unaware of,” says Don McMoran, director of Washington State University’s Skagit Extension office.

With funding from the Washington Department of Health and the United States Department of Agriculture, McMoran launched a suicide prevention program specifically aimed at farmers and farm workers.

This includes attending educational workshops, where the program can distribute promotional materials and reach out to farmers, “letting farmers know that their job is stressful,” says McMoran.

And McMoran doesn’t just give presentations. It creates spaces where farmers and farmworkers can meet, such as an event hosted by Skagit Extension and WSU’s bread lab called “Pizza for Producers.”

“The idea behind it is to bring farmers together so they can communicate,” says McMoran. “We’re kind of trying to rebuild the community in those rural areas, a lot of it has really been hit hard, especially by Covid as people were isolating themselves and that had an even more devastating effect on mental health.”

A new report from the Seattle Times says agricultural workers face unique challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It’s generational,” says Michelle Baruchman, engagement reporter for the Times’ Mental Health Project. “So their parents did it, their grandparents did it, until, you know, the first settlers in the United States.”

This means there can be an added sense of responsibility among farmers, with the weight of their lineage on their shoulders.

“It’s also part of their identity,” Baruchman says. “This kind of work is not a 9 to 5 office job. It’s something they do, in many cases, 365 days a year, in all kinds of weather conditions. And then that’s part who they are. And so it’s hard for them to separate their jobs from their fundamental personalities and beings.”

Barriers to mental health care with farmers and agricultural workers may include the inability to find providers in their area or the inability to obtain the schedule of physicians who serve their location.

There is also a lot of stigma around receiving treatment.

“It’s both this lack of ability to find someone, but also the cultural norms around this idea that you should be able to help yourself,” says Baruchman. “That you work on your land every day, that you produce food for yourself, that you should be able to help yourself with your own mental health issues and that you should not need outside support.”

Baruchman notes that there is a difference in the support needed for farmers versus agricultural workers.

“While farmers could benefit from mental health providers who understand the agrarian lifestyle, farm workers could benefit from mental health providers who not only understand the agrarian lifestyle, but are also fluent in the languages ​​they speak, Spanish and indigenous languages,” says Baruchman. .

It is also necessary to understand the culture of agricultural workers and their way of life.

Don McMoran, director of Washington State University’s Skagit Extension office, says more resources are also available.

“We have a private funder who is also very interested in this topic, and they made a donation so that we could work with the WSU Psychiatric Clinic in Pullman,” McMoran said. “And we can actually give out vouchers, so free coupons to farmers and farm workers, so they can actually sit down and talk to a medical professional about their mental health.”

Baruchman says that more than anything, what struck her as she told this story was how hard agricultural work is.

“People are really working, not just in bad weather, but also in Covid,” Baruchman says. “Additionally, women experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in these jobs.”

But Baruchman notes that it’s also a career that people are very proud of. The push to recognize and talk openly about mental health needs strengthens the community.

“There’s a new wave of recognition of these stressors,” Baruchman says, “that it doesn’t make you weaker to talk about it, it makes you stronger and it makes you a leader in your community to be able to share your stories and make them feel what other people in the community may feel.”

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