Health Social Issues

Farmers Navigate Dual Crises of Climate and Mental Health

6 min read

In a world of increasing climate chaos, farmers are more and more vulnerable to extreme weather events that threaten their livelihoods. Farming can be hard work under the best of circumstances, and a changing world is making matters harder and impacting farmers’ mental health. This article from Nexus Media News sheds light on the urgent need for culturally appropriate mental health services and stronger community support systems to help farmers navigate increasingly turbulent times.

Editor’s Note: This article contains mention of suicide, which may be upsetting to some readers. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US only): 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to chat with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.
By Melissa Godin • Originally published by Nexus Media News on July 17, 2023

When Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer and psychologist, heard his phone ring on a spring morning in 2019, he knew he had to answer. In the previous four months, his state had experienced the wettest period in its recorded history; farmers in the region were in crisis. A week earlier, one of Rosmann’s patients had lost his entire stock of corn when floodwaters breached a storage barrier, threatening to bankrupt him. Rosmann knew the man was in a dark place.

When he picked up the phone, his patient’s wife was on the other end: “He said he’s going to kill himself.”

The climate crisis is wreaking havoc on farms across the United States. Wildfires in California are burning avocado and citrus trees to a crisp, drought in the Midwest has eroded corn and soybean production, and unseasonal arctic fronts are killing maple blossoms across the Northeast.

And these impacts are only getting worse. A 2022 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that more than half of young farmers said they experienced climate impacts either very or extremely often. For farmers, wildfires, drought, floods, and pests are not just an inconvenience — they are an existential threat.

The Link Between Climate Change and Mental Health

Rear view of unrecognizable senior farmer standing in his agriculture corn field.

A 2022 study published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California found that extreme heat is “positively associated” with farmer suicide. A 2021 study by a Colorado-based suicide prevention group found that when drought conditions increased in the state, so did the suicide rate among farmers.

It’s a phenomenon occurring around the world, from India to Australia.

“This is what climate change is doing,” says Rosmann. “It’s putting people in a place of extreme apprehension, where they feel there is no way out.”

Experts say they have witnessed a rise in farmers struggling with anxiety and depression as climate impacts have worsened in recent years. The farmer crisis hotline run by Farm Aid, for instance, has seen a significant increase in calls from farmers during natural disasters linked to climate change.

“When climate disaster strikes, or an ongoing disaster such as drought is occurring, the toll on farmer mental health is high,” says Caitlin Arnold-Stephano, a farmer and program manager at Farm Aid. “Often a disaster can push a farmer over the already-thin margin or edge that existed.”

Mental Health Support in the US Farm Bill

In recent years, the federal government has woken up to the mental health crisis affecting farmers. The 2018 Farm Bill was the first to direct funding toward farmers’ mental health by providing grants for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which connects farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers with mental health assistance programs and resources.

Advocates hope that the next Farm Bill will offer even more support. Bipartisan legislation, led by senators Joni Ernst (R–Iowa) and Tammy Baldwin (D–Wisc.), would reauthorize the FRSAN to establish helplines, provide suicide prevention training for farm advocates, and create support groups for farmers and farmworkers. The bill would increase funding for the program, authorizing $15 million per year for the program for the next five years, up from $10 million allocated in the last Farm Bill.

“We need to push for the network to be expanded,” says Rosmann, who helped write the 2018 legislation. “The bill is the major way we can bring about change on this issue.”

Higher Suicide Rates Among Farmers

Fail, unsuccessful or very tired farmer concept. Asian farmer is working in the field of tobacco tree, sitting and feeling quite bad, sick and headache. Agriculture business concept

Even before climate change began taking its toll, farmers already faced severe mental health issues. The rate of suicide among farmers has historically been three-and-a-half times higher compared to the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association. Farmers often work under precarious and psychologically taxing conditions due to weather variations, changing policies, and economic tariffs, as well as fluctuating food prices. In the 1980s, American farmers faced an economic crisis that saw a quarter million families lose their farms, destroying businesses and decimating rural communities. Yet despite these challenges, farmers are less likely than the general public to have access to mental health services.

Rosmann, who grew up in Iowa but spent several years studying and practicing psychology out of state, observed this firsthand when he moved back to his home state in the early 1980s. When word got out that he was both a farmer and a psychologist, his phone did not stop ringing.

“People started calling me at all hours of the day and night,” he says. “There was clearly a need for someone who understands the culture of farming and gets what they are going through.”

Over the past five decades, Rosmann has come to intimately understand the toll farming takes. He has stayed on the phone with a woman who tried to kill herself by swallowing too many pills. He has climbed up a 60-foot ladder in a corncrib to stop a friend from jumping.

Now, Rosmann says, climate change is exacerbating this crisis. “Practically every farmer is concerned about it,” he says. Some of his patients have lost an entire season’s crop to floods, heat, or other climate-related disasters. In other cases, subtly worsening weather conditions simply mean more work without an increase in pay, resulting in physical and mental exhaustion among farmworkers.

Taking the Blame for Climate Change

Another stressor is that farmers often feel they are blamed for climate change.

“Livestock and dairy farmers in particular are often singled out as ‘destroying the planet,’ with their cows being blamed for their methane emissions,” says Greg Mruk, executive director of New York FarmNet, an organization affiliated with Cornell University that offers financial and emotional counseling to farmers. “Yet farmers feel that they are stewards of water, land, and air.”

Getting Culturally Appropriate Care

psychologist psychiatrist talk couple of two men touch talk speak smile laugh Babic

Many farmers, however, struggle to access mental health services, which are often not readily accessible in rural areas. And when services are available, they are not always tailored to farmers’ needs. Traditional mental health services can be alienating to farmers, who sometimes come from communities where mental health is highly stigmatized.

“To effectively reach farmers, you have to have culturally appropriate care,” Rosmann says.

Experts say that for mental health interventions to be effective, therapists need to either come from farming communities or be aware of the farming culture.

“Farming and agricultural culture come with a lot of ‘bootstrap individualism’ and ‘blue-collar worldview,’ which often includes feelings of power, control, self-reliance, and dominion over the land,” says Krista Bajgier, a therapist in Maryland working on mental health and nature. “When you’re talking about climate change, you’re talking about forces seemingly beyond their control.” Bajgier says that if therapists want to support farmers, understanding this worldview is critical. It helps explain why climate change is not only an economic stress — it’s an existential threat to farmers’ very identities.

For farmers and workers from marginalized groups, such as Hispanic migrant farmworkers, experts say it is also critical that therapists be from the same cultural background. Organizations running mental health hotlines have found that Hispanic farmers and farmworkers are more likely to call back if their counselor shares the same culture and language.

Another strategy is to organize group meetings in local community centers, such as churches, where farmers — who often work in isolation — can share their experiences together. Rosmann, who organized these workshops in his hometown, says they are an effective way of teaching people how to ask for help. “These workshops are touching,” he says. “A lot of tears are shed.”

Looking for Government Support

Mental health interventions have increased significantly thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill. Since the legislation was passed, four regional centers established through FRSAN have increased training to recognize signs of depression or anxiety, created support groups, and expanded access to hotlines.

If passed, the next bill would increase funding available to the program to hire more behavioral health specialists, particularly those trained to work with different farming populations, including veteran farmers and farmers of color.

But unless the federal government takes action to address the root causes of farmers’ distress — the economic precarity, the lack of support, the increasingly unpredictable weather — many experts are concerned farmers will continue to struggle.

“The stage is set for another major troublesome era,” says Rosmann. “Farmers are worried about that.”

Farmers say that what they need is not only greater support from the government but more agency and autonomy in developing adaptation strategies to climate change.

“More than anything, farmers want to be given a chance to be part of the solution, a chance to figure it out,” says Mruk. “Let’s not be of the ‘sky is falling’ mindset. We need to take a proactive approach.”

If you or a loved one are struggling, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

This article was originally copublished by Nexus Media News with Ambrook Research as part of a series that looks at ways the 2023 Farm Bill can help address the climate crisis. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow @NexusMediaNews.

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Featured Image: Lance Cheung for USDA via Flickr

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