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UGA study shows that farmers experience obstacles to mental healthcare

Farmers have insufficient access to mental health support according to a new study by the University of Georgia.

The study, published in the Journal of Rural Mental Health, outlines the cultural norms that limit farmers’ ability to seek help for mental health struggles. Principal Investigator Christina Proctor, a Clinical Assistant Professor at UGA’s College of Public Health says the study will help develop programs to address farmers’ needs. She says farmers face unique mental health challenges.

“Farmers are not only physically at risk, but they’re also financially at risk, and the stress associated with both of those things are hurting their mental health,” says Proctor.

Farmers work long-hours in an unpredictable economic environment. At the start of the season, farmers take on a heavy financial risk by growing crops and raising livestock, according to Proctor. Unpredictable events like storms or viral outbreaks can wreak havoc on a farm’s profitability. Farmers also face physical risks as farm equipment accidents can be life-threatening.

Some farmers look to alcohol and other substances to cope with financial or personal losses, according to Proctor. Researchers found that mental health stigma limits farmers’ ability to seek healthcare, which may worsen their mental health.

Researchers interviewed 15 full-time farmers from ten rural counties across Georgia to assess mental health barriers in the agricultural community. The paper, led by public health doctoral student Noah Hopkins, found that cultural norms and stigma may stop farmers from seeking mental health support.

“Masculinity was a massive influence on the farmers that we spoke to and their intentions to even have a conversation about mental health care with their peers,” says Hopkins.

Hopkins says farmers are less likely to seek mental health support because they watched their parents and grandparents handle stress without seeking help. He says that farmers often feel like they need to act as ‘tough and resilient’ as their relatives did. Seeking help, even from a neighbor or a friend, is seen as a sign of weakness and an inability to take care of one’s own affairs.

Hopkins says he believes his research will empower the farming community by bringing attention to farmers’ struggles.

“This is a group of people that feeds the entire country. It’s a remarkably small amount of the population of the United States,” he said. “It is critical that our farmers are healthy and enjoying the work that they do and feel a part of the greater population.”