MACON, Ga. — Researchers at the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center at Mercer University gave a preview of “Farmer’s Mental Well-Being Project: Statewide Survey Report,” at the May 19 Farm Stress Summit in Tifton.
Among the findings was this: 29% of farmer workers, owners and managers had thought of suicide in the past year. Among first-generation farmers, 60% said they had suicidal thoughts in the past year.
The survey, conducted from Jan. 1 to April 30, drew 1,651 responses. Each of Georgia Farm Bureau’s 10 districts had at least 100 survey respondents. All but two of Georgia’s 159 counties had at least one person respond.
“In the months leading up to this research, we heard about things like farmer-specific trainings and mental health trainings for farmers, but there’s no real data to show what that training needs to look like, and so we thought to inventory our farmers to find out what is going on,” said lead author Stephanie Basey, a PhD candidate in the Mercer University School of Medicine’s (MUSM) Rural Health Sciences program. “What are the stressors that impact them directly or maybe even in their community? That was the base of this, with the hope to, working with the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture, develop that farmer-specific training with the input of our farmers.”
The study quantifies what many in agriculture have long known – farming, with so many factors outside the farmer’s control, comes with extraordinary stress. The survey showed 96% of farmers are either moderately or highly stressed. In addition, 40% of farmers felt lonely at least once in the last month, 49% felt sad or depressed and 39% felt hopeless.
“There was a scarcity of literature, and what literature there was focused mainly on suicide,” Basey said.
In addition to suicidal thoughts, the survey measured sources of stress, activities farmers use to cope with stress, and access to professional help for mental well-being.
Dr. Anne Montgomery, a biostatistician with Mercer’s Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center who served as a co-principal investigator for the study, said the group wanted to generate data to help explain the alarming rate of farmer suicides noted in 2018 documentation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which counted 50.7 suicides per 100,000 farmers, more than triple the rate (14.9 per 100,000) measured in all industries.
“Long-term exposure to stress negatively impacts physical and mental health, and in turn this leads to development of stress-related disease and disorders,” Montgomery said. “So the bulk of our study was to develop an inventory of stressors and coping mechanisms among farmers. We were hoping to develop some tailored interventions to improve mental well-being of farmers and we will be working on that.”
Survey participants were presented a wide array of stressors and asked to identify which ones affected them. The two most common were balancing home/work life and weather. For each of those, 61% said they were moderately worried, worried a lot or extremely worried. Following those stressors were COVID-19 impact on income (59%), saving for retirement (59%) and unexpected financial burdens (59%).
The respondents were asked to identify the ways they manage their stress. The most common, noted by 39% of respondents, was exercise or walking, followed by talking to family or friends (31%), engaging in a hobby (28%), drinking alcohol (27%), watching TV or reading (27%) and sleep (22%). In addition to drinking alcohol, survey participants said they use cannabis (5%), other illicit drugs (4%) and over-the-counter drugs (2%).
The Georgia Foundation for Agriculture and Georgia Farm Bureau were among the partners in publicizing the research and gathering data.
Visit www.georgiaruralhealth.org/farmworkersurvey/ to request the final report and to access the results of a pilot study done in 2021.
–Jay Stone, Georgia Farm Bureau