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Farm stress: Don’t be afraid to help

By Staff | Mar 9, 2018



Weather and markets are two things farmers cannot control. But they are also two major contributors to the financial and emotional well-being of a farm family.

When weather and markets don’t cooperate, and when decisions that have been made don’t pan out, it can lead to financial pitfalls, which can lead to the loss of cash flow, land and assets, which can lead to depression, which can lead to isolation, which can lead to the worst possible scenario for a farm family.

Human Services Director Margaret Van Ginkel, who is also a family finance specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and coordinator for the Iowa Concern hotline, said 2017 was a tough year for farm families, and this year may be similar.

“Crop profit margins are tight once again, as more farms face cash flow and working capital constraints,” Van Ginkel said. “After Christmas there is opportunity for more stress when farmers have to talk to their landlords about leases, and to their lenders about their loans. It can be very stressful.”

She added it’s best to face a situation straight up, but when farmers lay awake at night worrying about situations instead of talking to someone about how to relieve their problems, it causes even more stress.

According to Van Ginkel, it’s hard to face serious adversity in a positive way, but added that farm families don’t have to face hard times alone.

Iowa Concern is a hotline with a toll-free number, 1-800-447-1985. It has live chat capabilities and a website (www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/). Counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at no charge. It provides access to stress counselors and an attorney for legal education, as well as information and referral services for many topics. Language interpretation services are also available, and all information is confidential.

What to watch for

There are signs to watch for in a person who is experiencing farm stress, Van Ginkel said. They might appear to be “pulled in” – not attending activities that they usually attend, and not talking as they usually do.

“They might feel isolated and ashamed, feeling like they’re the only ones, but they are not the only ones experiencing this kind of stress,” she said. “If they don’t want to talk to you, then they can call the Iowa Concern hotline and talk about their problems. Everyone needs someone to talk to in tough situations, and the conversations on the hotline are confidential.”

Someone who is stressed may sleep a lot, or not sleep at all. They might eat too much, or not at all. Van Ginkel said persons experiencing farm stress might not think as clearly as they usually do, so accidents happen more frequently or more easily.

The best approach to someone who is experiencing possible farm stress, according to Van Ginkel, is to come out and ask they if they are OK and address possible issues with them, and let them know they are not the only ones facing serious stressful situations.

“Tell that person what you are seeing in them and that you are concerned,” said Van Ginkel. “Ask that person if there is something you can do to help them, and maybe lead them to a friend or minister, or someone who can help them.”

She added that people under stress need support, whether it’s a mental health professional, medicine, or a friend or family member to talk to. Some insurance plans will pay for medicines or counseling, so families should investigate that option.

“Encourage people not to be ashamed if they need help, because it’s something we all might need from time to time,” said Van Ginkel. “It’s OK to talk to a psychologist or behavior health counselor. It’s hard for farmers because they typically have so much pride.”

She added the suicide rate among farmers is higher than it is among veterans, and she said the rate among veterans is “pretty high,” adding that farmer suicide rates around the Midwest are not as high as in areas such as Wisconsin, with troubles plaguing dairy farmers there.

“It’s concerning,” she said. “People need support. You can’t always get through it by yourself.”

Van Ginkel stressed the importance of being able to communicate, but said some families have problems and don’t want to communicate, and the process breaks down. If the problem turns physical, or if the person threatens suicide, she said the best thing is to be up front about their actions.

“You need to ask them if they have a plan or if they have thought about suicide,” she said. “I think that’s hard for many of us to do, but we need to approach them about it, and you need to keep safe.”

Van Ginkel added that family members or friends might go around and pick up items that could jeopardize the life of the person under stress, or others in the family.

“… and if you have to, you can call in law enforcement to ensure your safety. It’s good to not be alone with a person whose stress has become physical toward others.”

Easing stress

Avoiding stress could be as simple as getting enough exercise – walking, running, bowling, or any kind of exercise routine – to help clear the mind, according to Van Ginkel, who added good nutrition will help the brain function more clearly, as will getting enough sleep.

She continued by saying resisting drugs and alcohol will lessen the chances of making poor decisions, drinking plenty of water each day will help the body function at its optimal level, and stay with a normal routine as much as possible, reaching out to others for help and support.

“You may find they are experiencing the same kinds of problems,” said Van Ginkel.

Farm stress is often taken out on family members. Because of that, she said the spouse or affected family member could go to counseling or talk to someone outside the family as well, in an effort to stay as healthy as possible throughout the duration.

Van Ginkel added it’s important to learn what a farm family can control financially.

ISU Extension has a group of people called farm associates, who come out to the farm and can help with farm business decisions, running a computer analysis with information related to a person’s farm, and help make decisions for the coming year.

“By doing that, it may help you be better prepared when you go in to talk to your lender,” said Van Ginkel. “Contact your ISU Extension office and ask who the farm associate is in your area, or go on the website and find your county.”

The website is www.extension.iastate.edu.

She said the farm is the hardest place to experience extreme financial stress because it involves other family members.

“It can be a tough situation, but you need to sit everyone down and talk to each other, sometimes making some tough decisions,” she said. “You have to remember that the family is very important, and you want to keep that family together. Families do break up over situations concerning finances, but it’s important to find the best way to proceed without damaging family ties.”

Van Ginkel said cranberry farm families in Michigan and Kansas are experiencing extreme stress with no markets for their crops. They are having to dispose of 50 percent of their crops because of the glut of cranberries on the market.

“It’s important to watch out for each other and watch for signs of stress, and intervene,” she said. “Farming is no 9 to 5 job and then you come home. You are home when you are on your farm. It’s hard to get away from it, and when things go bad, it’s all right there.”

“It affects everyone.”

Information from ISU Extension said loss, grief or depression can immobilize a person, making it difficult to look realistically at a situation or to take action. It’s important, they said, for friends or family members not to ignore signs that a person needs help.

Following are some tips to helping a confrontation conversation be successful:

– Plan a caring confrontation, in a place where privacy and openness are key.

– Discuss specific behavior, focusing on changes noticed, keeping a calm demeanor.

– Give the person time to speak about how they feel, since stress and emotional pain can make it difficult for a person to respond to concerns noticed. Also, make sure the true situation is understood by both parties.

– Tell stressed people about available sources for help. Find out about sliding fees and other forms of assistance before visiting with a person who is experiencing extreme stress.

ISU Extension information says remaining silent or staying away from people or families experiencing farm-related stress may seem easier to do, but troubles seem worse when friends and family stay away during such difficult times. ISU Extension said to create an atmosphere of caring by being genuinely happy to see them, offering a listening ear, letting them talk, reassuring them that comments will not go any further – and follow through with that.

It’s also recommended to ask them how they are, extend a hug or an arm around the shoulder for support, and let them know they are there for whatever needs a stressed-out farm family needs.

They can also offer to make contacts, something that is hard for a person undergoing stress to do.

Those wanting to help should continue to be supportive and watch for signs of depression and/or suicide.

“Take the signs seriously – seeking help is urgent,” said ISU Extension information.

Call the Iowa Concern hotline (1-800-447-1985) for more tips on the signs of depression and suicide, and further explanations of them.

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