Much like their counterparts across the nation, farmers in Georgia have experienced increased rates of suicide and stress over the last decade.
To help curb these statistics, an interdisciplinary team of researchers and University of Georgia Cooperative Extension faculty have teamed up to help understand the causes of rural stress and to build systems that can help rural communities support community members in crisis.
“The challenges of rural stress are complex, and involve everything from economics, to weather, to emotions. Having an interdisciplinary team is essential to tackling a multi-pronged problem like this,” said Anna Scheyett, dean of the UGA School of Social Work and a rural health advocate.
In a first of its kind survey of Georgia, researchers from the School of Social Work found that those in rural areas rated the stress of Georgia’s farming population as high, an average of more than four on a five-point scale, and believed that farmers were more stressed than they had been a year ago.
Despite the survey participants’ awareness of the stress in their community, only 36% of respondents reported being confident or very confident that they could help a friend or family member whose stress was reaching dangerous levels. About 33% reported having little or no confidence that they could help someone who was in crisis.
The survey, which was conducted in fall 2019 at the Georgia Farm Bureau Convention, was limited in scope, but gives a picture of the seriousness of the stress farmers are feeling and supports the stories shared anecdotally with those who work in rural areas for the past several years, Scheyett said.
“This study is valuable for a number of reasons, said Scheyett.
“It confirms our concerns about stress levels and causes in farmers, and that many people in rural areas don’t know how to help someone whose stress has reached a crisis. It also helps us understand the best ways to get information to farmers and farming communities about taking care during times of high stress. The good news is that there are lots of things that can be done to manage stress—we just need to get the word out there.”
Anecdotally, farmers have shared their concerns about finances and unpredictable weather, but this survey helped provide some data to document the prevalence of those concerns.
About 72% of survey respondents cited weather as the top stressor for Georgia farmers. About 30% each reported finances and commodity prices as farmers’ top stressors. Survey respondents also identified social media, newsletters and magazines, Extension classes, and websites as the best ways to provide information on stress management to farmers.
In an effort to help rural communities support farmers as they deal with increased levels of stress, UGA Cooperative Extension has launched a rural stress information clearinghouse here. The site provides resources from experts across the country to help individuals recognize a neighbor in crisis and connect them with assistance.
There are also numerous resources on health and wellness, financial planning, dealing with stress and much more.
In addition to the website, UGA Extension agents and specialists are working with farmers at commodity production meetings across southwest Georgia to jumpstart the conversation about health, both physical and mental.
Extension agents, who serve in every county in Georgia and work closely with the agricultural community, can play a vital role in helping to normalize conversations about stress and mental health, said Laura Perry Johnson, associate dean for UGA Extension.
“I see us as a conduit between our audience and the people who can help them,” Johnson said. “I’m not, in any way, trying to turn us into counselors. But their Extension agents and their bankers know when they’re in trouble, and they trust us.”
UGA Extension has partnered with local health care providers as well as the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to combine the resources and expertise of each organization.
“This is a complex, multi-faceted problem and UGA Extension is excited to convene a diverse team of experts to help us address this issue. So far, our efforts and educational resources have been very well received by farmers and several have followed up to avail themselves of the offered counseling and other services,” Johnson said.
“My appreciation goes to all of our partners as well as the agriculture agents and specialists who care so deeply about the success and wellbeing of their clientele. This is a new area of education for us and slightly out of our area of expertise but, with the expertise of our partners, we are able to help farmers get the resources they need, and that is ultimately the role of Extension.”