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Massachusetts farmers are helping one another manage stress and mental health

Farmer Meg Riley with some of her Shetland sheep in Middleborough, Massachusetts.
Farmer Meg Riley with some of her Shetland sheep in Middleborough, Massachusetts.

Being a farmer has always been hard and stressful work, but there's now a growing awareness that the demands of the job and its increasing unpredictability from climate change is taking a rising toll on the mental health of those who work in agriculture. As a result, the state launched a program to train farmers how to recognize when someone is under stress, and how to connect them with resources.

Farmer Meg Riley is among those who have participated in the training program. She is raising about 20 Shetland sheep at the farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts, where she leases land.

For Riley, who is also a farming educator with Plymouth County Extension, the issue of farmers' mental health hits close. Growing up, she had problems with anxiety.

"I've only had a couple of panic attacks as an adult,” she said. “You get set off and it feels like, almost like water is like washing over you and you can just feel it. Like it starts at your head and it sinks down to your toes, and you start to feel a little bit numb, and you start to feel like I can't breathe so good. My heart's racing."

Riley says her career helps her manage her anxiety.

"When there's literally animals that have to be fed, something else is like depending on me. So I can get out of my own head a little bit and it's like I can kind of switch gears," she explained.

But she's also seen the toll that the job can take.

"An older gentleman that I know chose to take his life,” Riley said of a fellow farmer. “I mean, honestly, nobody knows the exact reasons for it. But when you have the stressors of potentially not having access to land or not having access to secure housing, and then on top of that, you know, the weather changes or your animals get sick, it can just be a situation that would break anybody."

Last year, the state Department of Agricultural Resources surveyed farmers about their mental health. More than 200 responded. The results showed more than half of them were suffering from anxiety, and nearly a third said they couldn't stop or control their worrying.

"The number one factor of influence on their mental health and well-being was the weather, at nearly 60%,” said Ashley Randle, the department's commissioner. “Fifty-three percent said that the long hours and stressful working conditions and being able to find a work-life balance was very challenging for them."

The survey also showed most farmers weren't getting any kind of help for their mental health.

"Farmers have a lot of pride,” Randle said. “And so sometimes when they were experiencing mental health challenges, they would push on and say it would get better."

The department wanted to help remove the stigma associated with seeking help, Randle said. They contracted with a program in Vermont called Farm First, which has been addressing mental health needs of farmers in that state since 2009.

For the first three months of this year, the program ran webinars for Massachusetts farmers and others in the agricultural community.

The training sessions covered how to spot warning signs of unhealthy stress.

"If we notice reduced care given to animals, machinery or fields or to the farmers themselves, and also increased accidents, those are all things that are really signs that something isn't quite right," Leanne Porter of Farm First said in one webinar presentation.

The webinars also covered how to connect people with resources that can help.

About 100 people took the training sessions, according to the department, and they are now working on developing a peer-to-peer network of farmers who get extra training to help others in their community.

"We're also looking at the department to ultimately bring on a behavioral health specialist who understands the unique needs to agriculture to be able to provide those one-on-one services," Randle said.

Gov. Maura Healey's proposed budget included funding for that position. It's not yet clear if that money will successfully work its way through the legislative approval process.

Farmer Meg Riley participated in the training program and is hoping to be part of the new peer-to-peer network.

"You know, I have seen farmers like at their brink and at their breaking point, and I wish that some of these resources had existed then to share with them," Riley said.

Still, she said she's glad to see the state recognizing this is an issue.

"It's just my hope that this commitment actually can make a difference in some people's lives."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

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