While farming can be a rewarding way to make a living, it can also be tough. Weather, pricing pressures and unpredictable swings in demand can take a toll — not only on finances but also on the mental health of farmers, farming families and farm workers across the country.
The stark reality is that untreated depression and feelings of hopelessness can be fatal. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agricultural industry jobs ranked fourth among occupations in the U.S. with the highest suicide rates, particularly for men.
As a research institution with deep roots in Mississippi’s agricultural communities, Mississippi State University is extending a helping hand — and in some cases, a lifeline — to vulnerable individuals by focusing resources on mental health first aid and substance abuse awareness and prevention.
As experts working on the front lines of agriculture and other areas impacting families across the state, MSU Extension agents play a key role in the university’s outreach strategy. MSU is providing mental health first-aid training for agents in all 82 counties to help them better identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health challenges and crises in their communities.
MSU’s outreach effort also includes a focus on substance abuse awareness and prevention. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, MSU Extension launched the PROMISE initiative (PReventing Opioid Misuse In the SouthEast), a multi-level approach to prevent prescription opioid misuse among rural families in Mississippi.
As always, the power of MSU’s interdisciplinary collaboration continues leading the way to a brighter future for Mississippi’s farming communities. MSU’s mental-health outreach team includes experts from food science, nutrition and health promotion, agricultural communications, agricultural economics, psychology, animal and dairy sciences, human sciences and the Social Science Research Center.
MSU’s approach leverages the power of human connections to build a community-based approach to mental health awareness. In addition to Extension agents, the initiative includes occupations that routinely interact with agricultural producers, such as equipment and product retailers, sales representatives, banking and finance professionals, local merchants and health care providers.
The initiative also has a youth outreach component supported by Extension agents’ work with more than 60,000 4-H participants and their volunteer leaders across Mississippi.
To increase access to training, MSU is partnering with the national AgriSafe Network to offer a free, web-based course that covers topics such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal behaviors. One of the modules, “Talking to Farmers About Their Pain,” addresses occupational hazards that put farmers at greater risk for acute and chronic pain that could potentially lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy coping behaviors.
Mental health first-aid trainees are not encouraged or expected to provide treatment. Instead, training focuses on observation and communication skills, and when appropriate, reaching out to others who have closer relationships with at-risk individuals and making connections to licensed mental health care providers and treatment centers.
Compounding everyday stressors for farmers is a phenomenon known as the “agrarian imperative,” which has been defined by behavioral health expert Dr. Michael Rosman as a “genetically programmed instinct that impels farmers to hang onto their land at all costs.” It instills a drive “to work incredibly hard, to endure unusual pain and hardship, and take uncommon risks.”
Alex Deason has seen first-hand the daily hardships that farmers endure in his work as an MSU Extension agent in Sunflower County, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
Deason explains that mental health first-aid training helps frame the situation in a new light by reinforcing the importance of relationships and communication. Simple, everyday interactions can provide telling insights into a person’s mental health and well-being. The crux is learning to notice signs of distress and responding appropriately.
“Everybody has bad days, but the training helps you recognize differences between a bad day and what may be a deeper, more serious issue,” Deason says. “You can help the situation just by starting the conversation and asking someone how they’re doing. We owe it to the community in general to take a serious look at this problem and try to help as many people as we can. It may be a tough conversation, but the sooner you get it started, the sooner they can get some help.”
Six months after launching MSU’s outreach effort, Buys says over 60% of Extension agents had reported using mental health first-aid training, and nearly 15% had used it in crisis situations, meaning they’d helped someone who was contemplating suicide or experiencing other potentially life-threatening symptoms.
Along with its support of PROMISE, MSU is working with another statewide opioid-misuse prevention initiative, “Stand Up, Mississippi,” through the Mississippi State Department of Mental Health to develop messaging and strategies to improve public perceptions of people dealing with substance abuse disorders, strengthen polices for prevention and treatment, and promote statewide partnerships to combat the opioid crisis.
Studying mental health and substance abuse disorders from a variety of angles can lead to a deeper understanding of their root causes and more effective solutions to keep Mississippi’s farmers and farm families safe.