In stressful times, farmers need to add mental health to the to-do list

Jenny Schlecht
Forum News Service

Most farmers and ranchers have lists of chores they want to get done. But rarely do they remember to put caring for the most important asset on their operations on their lists, said Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension family science specialist.

“On that list, the first and most important thing needs to be the care of their own health and the people around them,” he said. “You can take care of your operation, but taking care of yourself is essential to being able to take care of your operation.”

Brotherson was raised on a ranch, so he knows the stresses that can come with agriculture. Farming and ranching generally rank in the top 10 for most stressful occupations, but right now, with low commodity prices, high input costs, poor weather and global strife, operators are dealing with a “pileup of additional stressors,” Brotherson said.

That “pileup” has led to many to sound the alarm on the mental and emotional health of farmers and ranchers. While the data is hard to nail down, suicides among farmers and ranchers are believed to be far higher than in the population as a whole. And along with concerns about suicide are concerns about the overall well-being of the nation’s farmers and ranchers.

Part of the problem, Alyssa Schultz says, is that farmers are often stoic and don’t want to feel that they have weaknesses even when they recognize they’re having problems.

Schultz knows that firsthand. In addition to being the crisis services supervisor for the Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response Program for Clay, Ottertail and Wilkin counties in western Minnesota, she farms with her husband Derek.

Not only do many farmers resist asking for help, she says, but they resist taking time to care for themselves.

“It’s really hard for me to convince them that they have 10 extra minutes,” Alyssa Schultz said.

But taking that opportunity to care for themselves can be the difference between success or further struggle, Brotherson says.

“Your ability to function as a farm or ranch operator is highly dependent on your health,” he said.

Stressful life

Derek and Alyssa Schultz raise small grains and alfalfa on rented land. The stresses, Derek Schultz says, are many.

“Timing, weather, prices,” he said.“In my area, there is a lot of competition that can really weigh in on the rest of the perspective.”

For him, the difficult farming environment has allowed him to feel some freedom from trying to be “perfect” on his farm. Instead, he knows he can’t control everything. But for others, the conditions can make lingering issues worse.

Michelle Erickson-Jones farms in Broadview, Mont., and has spoken about her mental health struggles. She was diagnosed with postpartum depression after the birth of her second son and more recently has been struggling with anxiety. The low prices and the late spring haven’t helped.

“It just compounds,” she said.

It’s not that other occupations don’t have stresses; it’s that farming and ranching can become so much a part of a person’s identity that the stresses don’t end when work is done for the day.

“I myself have punched the clock,” Derek Schultz said. “If you’re working at a factory, when the bell rings, that’s it. You’re done. You don’t worry about that place until you’re back there.”

On the farm, that to-do list sticks with you, he says.

Even so, stepping away from the farm can be “almost overwhelming” — even with a wife who works in the mental health field issuing regular reminders about the importance of doing so, Derek Schultz says.

“It is very difficult for farmers to detach,” he said. “Even the 10 minutes a day thing. It’s just hard to get that detached.”

For Erickson-Jones, finding a treatment provider for her anxiety has been a compounding factor. Broadview is only 30 miles from Billings, Mont., which has two major medical centers and many health care providers. Even so, of the first five places she called seeking help, two never called her back and three weren’t taking new patients. She knows she has other options in Billings; she worries, though, about people in even more rural areas who are farther removed from health care or those for whom those five calls would become overwhelming.

Seeking balance

Brotherson has a lot of helpful analogies when speaking of farm stress. Perhaps the most apt is that if a warning light went off on the tractor, the smart choice would be to stop the tractor, find the problem and deal with it. Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, trouble communicating, suicidal feelings and other feelings that something isn’t right shouldn’t be hidden away as weaknesses, he says. They should be investigated and treated.

“It just means it’s a warning signal that their mental and emotional health is certainly being affected in a major way, and they need to take care of themselves and they need to access resources that are helpful to them,” he said.

The first step he suggests is getting a health checkup. That will provide a baseline of not only physical health concerns but also mental and emotional health. A health care provider can refer a patient on to other services if necessary.

Next, Brotherson has two main recommendations: getting regular physical exercise and connecting socially with other people.

Exercise can seem unnecessary to some farmers and ranchers who spend their days on physically taxing work. But Brotherson says many people find that a vigorous walk or engaging in a sport can be a good way to let go of the struggles of the farm.

“Physical exercise of some type is really important as a stress management strategy that almost everybody can implement,” he said.

Having several people to talk to, either about the stresses faced or about topics completely unconnected to the farm, can provide a relief.

“Try to take the opportunity to connect with somebody socially every day,” Brotherson stressed. He adds that having people in one’s life to whom you’re accountable, like a spouse or friend who issue reminders about healthy decisions, can be helpful.

Alyssa Schultz explains that the Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response Program is a free program through the Minnesota Department of Human Services that seeks to help people find resources for their mental health problems while keeping them safe in their homes. Her team and others across the state respond 24 hours per day to calls for help.

While they work to line people up with further resources, the mobile mental health crisis teams also act as a bridge until the person can get lined up with the right services.

During that bridge time, Alyssa Schultz and others provide social connection for patients and work with the patients on methods of self-care and coping skills.

For farmers, Alyssa Schultz stresses the importance of taking 10 minutes out of the day to do something that isn’t farming. Read a book. Go for a walk. Meditate.

She suggests taking time every day to think of three good things about the day; the practice has been shown to be as helpful to some people as taking an antidepressant when done for at least 21 days, she said.

For people who have displayed suicidal tendencies, the crisis response team makes safety plans, which include who the patient can call and where they can go when they’re struggling. They also work on planning day-to-day activities. For farmers, that can be difficult.

“Because with farming, you have a to-do list that’s a million miles long, and you’re never going to get it completed, because by the time you get all of the corn in the ground you’ve got something else to do. So there’s never really a day that you have where you feel accomplished,” Alyssa Schultz explained.

So, she asks them to plan at least one thing they can finish every day, even if it’s just a small project. Having something to check off the list can lead one to feel accomplished and less overwhelmed by the things that didn’t get done.

Finding stress relief isn’t the same for everyone. At Erickson Farm, there is a tee box and driving range by a barn for use during breaks, Erickson-Jones says. For Derek Schultz, family suppers and the involvement of his wife and 2-year-old daughter on the farm keep him going.

“Having the family out in the field really reminds you what you’re doing it for,” he said.

When Erickson-Jones first received treatment for her postpartum depression, she felt like a weight was taken off of her shoulders. She wants people to know that mental health problems and emotional turmoil can be treated.

“You’re not supposed to feel like this all the time,” she said.

With better mental and emotional health, farmers and ranchers will be better able to make good decisions for their operations. That means putting health priorities on the top of the to-do list has a good return on investment, Brotherson said.

“We need to prioritize our own health, including,” he said. “Not just our physical health but our mental health, to be able to work towards the wellbeing of our farm or ranch operation.”

Mental health resources

Resources are available to connect people to help for mental and emotional health needs, as well as other services. Here are some places nationally and in the region to go for help.

  • The 211 program is a hotline to connect people throughout most of the U.S. and Canada to human services resources. Call 211 or visit for more information.

— In Minnesota:

— In Montana:

— In North Dakota:

— In South Dakota: sources.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889. The lifeline’s website,, also has a chat option and other resources.
  • The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline can connect people to help for mental health, stress and crisis situations, daily living expenses, business, financial and legal help and more. Call 1-833-600-2670 or visit
  • farmerstress.
  • Minnesota’s Mobile Crisis Mental Health Services teams are made up of mental health professionals and practitioners who provide psychiatric services to people in their own homes or other sites outside traditional clinical settings. Crisis lines are answered 24 hours a day, and teams work to connect people rapidly to services. Visit to find the line for each county in the state.
  • North Dakota’s Regional Human Service Centers provide a variety of services, including vocational rehabilitation, mental health services, addiction treatment, crisis and outreach services, and other human services. Crisis lines are answered 24 hours a day. For contact information, visit
  • tact-info.pdf.
  • Montana offers the Montana Warmline for non-crisis services. Mental Health America of Montana has a “Virtual Drop-in Center,” which utilizes the telephone and internet to provide home-based support services for people with mental illness. For more information, call 1-877-688-3377 or visit For crisis contacts throughout Montana, visit
  • South Dakota’s Department of Social Services provides a list of behavioral health services available in each county. To locate your local resource, visit
  • The website provides information about agricultural behavioral health and contact information for Dr. Mike Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer who specializes in the mental health of farmers and ranchers.

For North Dakota State University resources on dealing with farm and ranch stress, visit