MSU Extension works in communities and with farmers to support mental health

As farmers face increasing challenges to the well-being of their farms and mental health, MSU Extension is training a support network and farm stress management programming to connect farmers with resources to help.

As farmers face increasing challenges to the well-being of their farms and mental health, MSU Extension is training a support network and farm stress management programming to connect farmers with resources to help.

Rep. Luke Meerman, District 88, Michigan House of Representatives

For farmers nationwide, the pressure of maintaining a successful business in the face of many uncontrollable issues can lead to stress, mental health issues and, for some, even suicide.

To help meet farmers where they are, Michigan State University Extension has developed a farm stress management program to support farmers dealing with financial and personal loss, especially those who might be contemplating suicide. MSUToday shares how the agricultural industry is evolving and needs support.

The MSU Extension Farm Stress Management programs have reached more than 1,000 farmers and those who care about them around Michigan and beyond since its launch last year.

“Our farm stress management programming combines expertise and research knowledge about trends in commodity pricing and agricultural income, various stressors that farmers face, the impacts of stress, coping strategies such as mindfulness, as well as warning signs of suicide,” said Courtney Cuthbertson, Ph.D., who leads the effort for MSU Extension.

While MSU Extension educators are not therapists or mental health practitioners, they do regularly interact with farmers and have been trained to see the signs of distress.

“Our outreach professionals are uniquely positioned at the intersection of agriculture and emotional health,” said Jeff Dwyer, Ph.D., director of MSU Extension.“We couldn’t tackle this without the 100-plus years of history of trusted relationships with communities --  collaborations and partnerships are what we do best.”

Michigan House of Representatives member Luke Meerman (88th District) told a group of Cooperative Extension professionals from around the country that the pressures of being a farmer almost caught up with him three years ago.

“My great-grandmother founded our farm in 1882,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘They’ve been able to figure it out and it will all end with me.’”

MSU Extension provided understanding and assistance with financial management as he was losing what felt like everything. Meerman said that relinquishing the farm might not be the solution for everyone, but if enabled him to move forward.

“For some, that’s the answer – to get out from underneath the stress,” he said. “And that’s a hard thing for farmers because their hearts are in it. There are examples of success after farming, too – I became a state legislator.”

The MSU Extension farm stress management programs offer a holistic approach to those experiencing stress by combining an overview of current farm financial situations and a discussion of the physical and mental impacts of stress.

Cuthbertson, who also conducts research about farmer mental health, points to social isolation, financial stress and difficulty in seeking mental health services as reasons for rising suicide numbers among farmers.

“Stigma related to mental health makes it more difficult for farmers to disclose any mental health concerns or to seek mental health services,” Cuthbertson said. She said the programs include brief points about opioid use and misuse as well.

Given the higher risk of physical injury in farming compared with other occupations, it is highly possible that farmers would be prescribed opioids, Cuthbertson said.

A report, commissioned by the American Farm Bureau, noted that more than a quarter of farmers say they have taken an opioid or other prescription painkiller without a prescription or have been addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers. And more than a quarter of those surveyed believe it would be somewhat or very easy to access a large amount of prescription opioids without a prescription.

For more information on MSU Extension Farm Stress Management resources and programs, visit the Managing Farm Stress website or contact Cuthbertson at cuthbe16@msu.edu.

If you or a loved one needs help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “GO” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.


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