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Farmers in Wisconsin can access a 24-hour hotline, free counseling and, soon, virtual support groups. It's all part of a state-funded wellness program focused on the agricultural community.
In one session, the counselor and a farmer talked about marriage issues. In others, farmers grappled with financial pressure, isolation, and problems with family members. While these are issues that people in the agricultural community commonly face, many don’t seek help to deal with them, according to Jessica Beauchamp, a licensed social worker.
“A lot of them won’t get a diagnosis of anxiety or depression—they’re just stressed,” said Beauchamp, who runs a private practice in Wisconsin. “They’re working every day with family members. It’s hard work that depends on weather, and finances, and they don’t have a lot of outside people to talk to that understand it. And they can struggle.”
Beauchamp is part of a state-led effort in Wisconsin known as the Farmers Wellness Program. The pilot initiative, launched in 2019, offers a host of free mental health services to farmers and their families, including a 24-hour wellness hotline, tele-counseling sessions and vouchers for in-person visits with participating mental health providers. Starting next month, the program will also offer virtual support group sessions for both farmers and farm couples.
As a whole, the initiative seeks to make it easier for farmers to seek support by removing the stigma associated with asking for help, particularly in the agricultural community, where expectations for behavior have always tended toward strength and self-sufficiency.
“Farmers have a lot of pride and they’re very stoic, and many don’t want to reach out for help or they don’t know how to,” said Jayne Krull, director of the Ag Resource and Promotion Bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “Over the years, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the stress and anxiety that farmers go through. That’s why we proposed this program.”
Farming has long been an occupation whose participants are at risk of isolation, depression and anxiety. Nationwide, suicide rates among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the general population, and they’re also more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. There are myriad reasons for this, Krull said, including financial stress, long hours, and family dynamics.
“There are things that are unique to farming that other people don’t have in their everyday lives,” she said.
“You’re obviously very dependent on the weather, which can decide whether you’re going to make it or break it each year. The market prices are so volatile, especially here in Wisconsin," Krull added. "You have long hours, which puts stress on relationships—both for farm couples and for families. And then there’s the financial stress that farmers go through when they’re trying to keep the farm as it’s passed on from generation to generation.”
Covid-19 has only exacerbated these sorts of pressures. The pandemic disrupted the food supply chain, closing schools and restaurants and sharply reducing demand for products, including dairy, which accounts for nearly half of Wisconsin’s $105 billion farm economy. Nationwide, two-thirds of farmers and farm workers said the pandemic had impacted their mental health, according to a December poll by Morning Consult.
“Covid specifically has added stress. Prices are still all over the place depending on supply and demand,” Krull said. “We had people having to reduce their herds or they’d have to dump their milk, because there was no place for that product to go. Some of our pork producers had to send their hogs to market when they didn’t want to, and still had a hard time finding a place that would take them.”
While the state’s wellness program has sought to help, some offerings have been more successful than others. The 24-hour hotline hasn’t been widely used so far, for example. But demand for counseling vouchers increased by 38% from 2019, and farmers have said that the option of tele-counseling—necessary during the pandemic—has made it easier to manage.
“We’ve had farmers comment that going to see a counselor before involved getting cleaned up, leaving the farm and going into town, where people might see them,” Krull said. “And now they can do it virtually, and for free.”
Officials are hopeful that the virtual support groups will be similarly popular. Those sessions, led on Zoom by farmers who have experienced stress and anxiety in their own work, are designed to bring farmers and farm couples together to discuss shared problems and provide support.
“We’re not coming from a place of, ‘Let’s all get together and talk about how we’re failing in some way,’” said Beauchamp, who will be on hand for each session to guide discussion and lend support as needed. “We’re not here to just be sad. Let’s build on some good stuff too.”
The groups—two each month for farmers, one specifically for couples—are free, and while farmers are required to register in advance to participate, they don’t have to use their real names or even turn on their computer cameras during the discussion. Krull is hopeful that added anonymity will encourage participation among farmers who may otherwise be hesitant to open up about their struggles.
“They’re isolated in their profession as well so they don’t get a chance to talk to a lot of people," she said. "The support groups are the perfect solution because they can hear that there are other people going through the same things they are.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.