What Pa. farmers have to say about their mental health struggles

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PENNSYLVANIA FURNACE, Pa. — The biggest obstacles to farmers seeking mental health help are embarrassment and cost, according to the 2022 Pennsylvania Animal Agriculture Mental Wellness Survey. 

Nearly 600 producers and 100 ag industry professionals responded to the survey, the results of which were discussed Aug. 10, at Pennsylvania State University’s Ag Progress Days. The results put to paper the well known but not well-studied mental health struggles of farmers.

The survey was conducted by an alliance of the state’s livestock producers, with funding from the state department of agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network Program. The goal was to generate a baseline snapshot of mental health in Pennsylvania’s animal agriculture community and identify potential needs related to mental health, said Ginger Fenton, a Penn State Extension dairy educator and one of the survey leads.

Farmers recognize the importance of mental health, with nearly 90% of respondents saying mental health was either “very important” or “moderately important,” according to the survey. 

But when it comes to who they will talk to about issues relating to mental health, farmers are more likely to turn to a family member, friend or someone in agribusiness than a health professional. 

According to the results, 72% of respondents talked to their spouse, 57% talked to family, and 54% talked to friends about mental health issues. Nearly 30% of respondents talked to agribusiness employees and 14% talked to their veterinarian about mental health issues.

Compare that with 12% of farmer respondents who said they talked to their primary doctor, 7% who talked to a private counselor and the 1% that used telehealth to talk about issues relating to mental health.

The survey found, unsurprisingly, the top three stressors were financial stress, weather and the long hours and conditions. The fourth highest response was non-farm stressors.

Farmers overwhelmingly feel tired when they are stressed, with more than 400 respondents listing that as a “feeling and behavior related to stress.” They also commonly feel anxious, have difficulty sleeping or have sudden outbursts of anger, according to the survey results. 

Survey respondents

The farmer respondents were primarily older men with decades of experience in agriculture. Of the 570 respondents, 70% identified themselves as male and 27% identified themselves as female.

There were 211 respondents who were 61 years of age and up and 140 who were 51-60 years old. About 40% of respondents indicated they worked as farmers for more than 40 years. 

Farmers who responded to the survey overwhelmingly represented the dairy and beef industries, with more than 319 identifying themselves as dairy farmers and 275 as beef producers. The survey allowed for multiple responses for the type of animal raised. 

There were 112 respondents who raised poultry, 93 who raised pigs, 86 small ruminant producers and 68 who raised some other type of livestock. 

Printed surveys were mailed to more than 7,800 dairy, beef, sheep, pig and goat producers in Pennsylvania last December. Farmers could respond via the mail or by completing the survey online through the end of January. 

Other initiatives

The survey is just one effort the state department of agriculture is putting forth in the realm of farmer mental health, thanks to USDA Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network funding. 

Earlier this year, the department launched a crisis hotline specifically for farmers. Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said the AgriStress HelpLine has received about 50 calls since it was opened in the spring. 

The AgriStress HelpLine is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people to call or text. The number is 833-897-2474.

Find the full results from the 2022 Pennsylvania Animal Agriculture Mental Wellness Survey here.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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