Protecting mental health in agriculture might mean doing the one thing we don’t want to do: come together.
Showing emotion always equaled “weak” to me, which is unfortunate since I’m an extremely emotional person. Time and maturity have helped me keep emotions in check as an adult, but there was a time I couldn’t control my reaction when I felt something. And it hacked me off.
I had two choices then just as I have in my approach to this column today: I can hone the craft of internalizing my feelings to the point where I am no longer vulnerable and hide behind facts, statistics and other people’s stories. Or, I could accept my vulnerability and share it with other people. I’m going to choose the latter.
In what I consider the revolving door of my quest for better mental health, I tried counseling one time 12 years ago. The only thing I really remember about it is that the psychologist was nice, but not relatable. We weren’t the same age or going through the same things or even the same gender. However, around that same time, I noticed that I did feel seen and heard when I was talking to close friends walking through my same stage of life. To me, this proves that a marriage between relatability and connection can have a serious positive impact on mental health.
Mental health in agriculture has become a focus among certain politicians and rural health advocates. I imagine it has something to do with the rate of suicide among farmers, which is 3.5 times higher than the general population.
For cotton producers, mental health might be a struggle because they’re staring at a market price that keeps hov- ering just below 90 cents. Mental toughness only goes so far when you put real money into a 2023 crop only for it to look similar to 2022.
And mental fortitude certainly doesn’t fix antics in Washington. It’s hard to watch an increasingly divided group of men and women who are supposed to be “for the people,” delay funding to a legislative package that keeps you in business.
Adding insult to injury, the factors mentioned above are totally outside of the farmer’s control. The farmer doesn’t dictate the weather or set the commodity price. The farmer doesn’t control the economy, nor can he or she solely lower the risk of the operation.
And while I can write all this down on paper, I still don’t know how it feels. I’m not a farmer. The producers I work with have walked thousands of miles in shoes I’ve never even put on. It’s a community that I don’t fully belong to. And I think that may be the missing piece in this rural mental health conversation. Are producers taking advantage of the community they belong to?
At the Plains Cotton Growers Board of Directors meeting in October, several of our producers worked on mental resilience. They did it together. One producer actually stood up and mentioned another producer helping him mentally. I saw them later in the parking lot. They stayed 30 minutes after the meeting building each other up.
That stuck with me. This producer told other producers he was struggling to remain positive. There wasn’t judgment from those he told — there was encouragement. We often think there’s risk in showing our vulnerability, yet, if we really think about it, the life experiences we will never forget came from emotional and vulnerable moments.
I’ve interviewed some retired farmers — who were farming in the 70s, 80s and 90s. They went to every meeting. Served on every board. Volunteered for multiple committees. They weren’t distracted by the advancement of modern technology. They spent time with each other.
Then COVID-19 hit, and we were actually rewarded for isolation. Meet- ings were cancelled. Churches weren’t allowed to assemble. Stores and restaurants closed. The rise in virtual connection came from good intentions — to at least supplement some of the isolation. However, it ended up hurting us in the long run. When the world opened back up again, we no longer felt the need to attend functions or gatherings. We convinced ourselves we didn’t need people as much as we once did.
Agriculture has never been affected to the degree that other communities have when it comes to this concept. But the industry was not immune to the consequences of the pandemic. PCG hosts an advisory group meeting every other Friday. One of these meetings was especially crowded, and one of the guests commented, “These are pre-COVID numbers.”
Fewer and fewer producers show up for events and meetings. Especially the younger generations who have never felt the need for gatherings as the ones who came before them. They’ve got kids in every youth sport known to man or showing animals. And, I’m not knocking that — our younger generations are busy. But with all the busyness can come its own form of isolation. We’re out of practice when it comes to paying attention to those around us who may be hurting. We’re not leaning on the shoulders of others in the trenches with us. We’re leaning on our own. And we’re falling over.
There are some great resources for everyone when it comes to taking care of mental health. Counseling and medica- tion are great options for treating mental health issues. Telemedicine has made huge waves in rural health care availability. If you need a counselor, you can download an app on your phone, pick one and do a session right from the tractor if you want to.
But wouldn’t it mean more if you could talk to someone who knows what you’re going through? Who is living it with you? Sometimes a good vent session is the healthiest thing you can do.
And while we’re being neighborly, let’s look out for each other. Check in with one another if you feel a friend has retreated mentally and/or physically.
Like it or not, suicide is an issue in the farming community. Farmers need to look out for farmers. And when it comes to observation, it’s typically not the “complainers” you need to worry about. It’s the ones who have stopped talking.
The challenges farmers are facing today aren’t new. You can ask older producers and they’ll tell you about the 50s or 80s — have you heard anyone mention 1973 as the best crop year they’ve ever had?
Solomon said it best when he said there is “nothing new under the sun.” These current circumstances have hap- pened before and will happen again in the future. How we react to them is the gamechanger. Will we internalize and assume we’re alone? Or will we share with others and know we’re in it togeth- er? You never know who is listening or who could be positively impacted by your willingness to be vulnerable. It might save someone else, or it could save you.
And if I’ve learned anything in the mental health arena, it’s that vulnerability and emotion are not weakness- es. Sharing your struggles is one of the strongest things you can do.
It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to feel hopeless. It’s okay to feel defeated. It’s not okay to keep it inside. Because emotions serve a purpose. They’re supposed to bring us together. Let’s share them.
Mental Health Resources:
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org
AgriStress Helpline for Texas – Southwest AgCenter: 833-897-2474
Mental Health Counseling
– South Texas Rural Health Services: 830-879-3047 or SouthTexasRuralHealth.com
Mental Health Crisis Services – Texas Health and Human Services: hhs.texas.gov