Rural Resilience is a new online course designed to make mental health care more accessible for farmers and rural communities in the United States.
Created by both the Michigan and Illinois State University Extension Programs, the Rural Resilience curriculum helps participants learn to recognize signs of stress, identify effective coping strategies, respond to suicidal behavior, and connect with appropriate resources.
“We are working to destigmatize the illness, and let [farmers] know that resources are available,” says Eric Karbowski, a behavioral health specialist from Michigan State University (MSU) Extension.
The course also offers specialized mental health crisis training for employees of institutions with direct contact with farmers, such as unions, insurance companies, and credit servicers.
“These individuals are key interceptors for recognizing warning signs,” Karbowski tells Food Tank. “The more people we educate [about mental health] the more we can bring awareness to farmers.”
For farmers in rural communities, accessing mental health care can be challenging, says Karbowski. According to a 2018 report from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the majority of rural counties, home to 273,000 small farms, are underserved by mental health practitioners.
Compounding the problem, some farmers lack health insurance coverage for mental health care. Instead, these services can require out of pocket payments, which 87 percent of farmers agree is a barrier to treatment, according to a survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Stigma can also prevent many in the profession from reaching out for support. “There’s a lot of pride wrapped up in farming,” says Olivia Fuller, a dairy farmer from Upstate New York. “Talking about the struggles can sometimes feel like we’re not cut out for it.”
The consequences of untreated mental health conditions among farmers can be serious. A survey conducted by the National Farmers Union revealed that three in four farmers have been directly impacted by substance abuse, either through their own experience or that of a family member or friend.
Farmers also exhibit a higher suicide rate relative to the general population, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To address these challenges, Karbowski and his colleagues are working to make Rural Resilience and other mental health resources for farmers as accessible as possible.
Through a partnership with Farm Credit, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Farmers Union, the general public can access Rural Resilience for free on the MSU Extension website. Other remote services like teletherapy are available through MSU’s Farm Stress Program.
But Karbowski says that it is also critical for farmers to lean on their own support networks to help manage mental health.
“People would meet at coffee shops and grain elevators, just to debrief and vent. Those things are becoming less of the norm,” Karbowski tells Food Tank. “Staying connected [is] really important for mental health, especially during times like this when people are struggling.”
While opportunities to gather in-person are limited during COVID-19, Fuller encourages fellow farmers to speak up about mental health in their communities through social media and other online platforms.
“As we open the dialogue between farmers, online and in-person, we’ll all start to feel more understood and supported,” Fuller tells Food Tank. “We need each other.”
Photo courtesy of Warren Wong, Unsplash.