Farmer’s Perspective on Mental Health

We interviewed 6 farmers to tell us about their perception of mental health and the challenges faced by farming and agricultural communities. Their answers were truly eye-opening. Below are excerpts from our interviews with Brendan Byrne, Nathan Brown, Carey Portell, Kristen Kelderman, Louise Virostok, and Sandi Knight.

What does mental health mean to you?

Interviewees acknowledged that mental health is complex, intertwined with other aspects of our lives, and looks different for everyone. They emphasized the importance of self-awareness, consistent care and nurturing of one’s own needs.

Mental health to me means taking care of myself as in self care physically and mentally in order to take care of my family and be a good friend.” – Louise Virostok

Mental health is our emotional well-being; our state of mind. Like physical health, it is an important part of our overall well-being. The two are intertwined; the health of one often impacts the other. Both require on-going care, attention and nurturing as we age and deal with life experiences.” – Sandi Knight

What did you learn about mental health growing up? Did you ever talk about it?

For all of our interviewees, mental health was not something that was discussed when they were younger.

Absolutely nothing. You didn’t speak of it or it was a sign of weakness.” – Carey Portell

It wasn’t until much later in life that I began to understand that how we act, think and feel impacts our overall well being. That it can be as important as physical health. This opened up a whole new world to me.” – Kristen Kelderman

Why do you think mental health is an important issue in agriculture and rural areas? 

All of the interviewees expressed that there are unique mental health challenges that rural dwelling individuals face, such as isolation, as well as access to and affordability of resources. They also highlighted that many individuals do not talk about mental health and fail to prioritize self-care.

Most rural people and aggies have grown up just the way I did, having no idea that what they feel/think is normal and that it is beneficial and not weak to seek guidance.” – Carey Portell

In agriculture we are taught that we can fix anything and do anything and that you do not quit until that task is complete. We often use and abuse our bodies to accomplish those tasks, and self-care often is not something that any of us consider as part of our existence. There are always animals to tend, crops to be sown, or equipment to be fixed. Self-care is usually the last thing anyone thinks about in their daily lives on a farm. Often access to services are often harder to receive and the stigma that surrounds mental health only amplifies the issue.” – Nathan Brown

I believe that many people were coached that pride meant that you don’t ask for help, you don’t admit defeat, you just put your head down and get the work done no matter what. We can do better than this. We must do better for our people in agriculture. Creating safe and helpful spaces to discuss and support each other.” – Kristen Kelderman

Do you have personal experience with mental health challenges?

All of the individuals interviewed have either suffered from mental health challenges themselves or witnessed a loved one struggling from mental illness.

Aside from the usual stresses of planting and harvesting, I personally don’t have specific mental health challenges.  I go through the usual ups and downs of life but have been able to navigate those waters okay. But I understand the issues more than most as my wife has been diagnosed in the last few years with a mental illness and that process has brought me to a deeper level of compassion and understanding.” – Brendan Byrne

I struggle day to day with anxiety most recently after COVID came through and the stressful events that have been drawn out long term. Without the social aspect of my lifestyle, my ‘balance wheel’ is out of balance and causing more challenges.” – Louise Virostok

I am a survivor of childhood abuse. It’s not something that I openly talk about a lot, but it’s a trauma I’ve lived with my entire life. More recently, a few years ago a friend took her life to suicide. These two events have been dark times in my life that have caused a lot of shame and grief.” – Kristen Kelderman

Do you observe stigma in your community around mental health? What does that look like?

Most of the interviewees have observed stigma surrounding mental health in their communities, which manifests in a lack of acknowledgment of mental health issues. Mental illness is viewed as a weakness and is highly stigmatized, as they are taught that farmers should be stoic and strong.

I know in the agricultural community at times asking for help isn’t easy.  I remember when we first started talking about mental health I had a farmer ask me why we were wasting so much time on mental health?  My response was that I didn’t want others to have to learn about it the hard way when it affects someone that they love. I didn’t want them to have to lose someone close to them to start to understand that people are struggling. I’ve lost a friend to suicide and I don’t want others to feel that helpless or to have to go through that aftermath.” – Brendan Byrne

Stigma around mental health is everywhere in our rural communities if you know what you are looking for or sometimes not looking at. I have friends that won’t talk about the troubled life they have led, and that drugs and alcohol is what they turn to in order to ease their pain. I have successful friends that allow thoughts of failure to enter their minds and let their operations slip to the point they are about to lose everything because they are afraid to talk to someone about their feelings and receive the help they so desperately need. I have friends that have lost a loved one in a tragic event and because they are viewed as the leader of the family have been told that it is not okay to grieve, it’s not okay to feel pain, it’s not okay to show emotion because they must be strong for the family. Is there stigma? Yes. Can we break it down, yes by loving each other and recognizing we all hurt sometimes and need a helping hand.”– Nathan Brown

One exception to this was Sandi Knight, who explained that she is fortunate to be involved in a variety of groups and organizations where mental health is openly discussed.

For me, they are safe places to share stories and resources. Speakers have been brought in to meetings, agriculture events and conferences on the subject of mental health. This opens up conversations and creates an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their story.”     – Sandi Knight

The experiences our interviewees exemplify the need for a changing discourse surrounding mental health in agricultural communities. Additionally, these stories make it evident that there need to be more avenues for support made available to farmers.