Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center Release Results of Farm Stress Study
Tuesday, June 28th, 2022
Researchers at the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center (GRHIC) at Mercer University, with assistance from the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture (GFA), have released their study, “Farmer’s Mental Well-Being Project: Statewide Survey Report.”
The study showed that 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. All but two of Georgia’s 159 counties had at least one person respond.
The principal investigators were Mercer University PhD candidate Stephanie Basey and Dr. Anne Montgomery, a biostatistician with the GHRIC. The GFA, affiliated with Georgia Farm Bureau, aided in promoting the study and collecting data. Each of Georgia Farm Bureau’s 10 districts, 14 to 17-county regions across the state, had at least 100 survey respondents.
“Challenges creating significant stress for farmers have drawn increasing attention in recent years, and the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture was happy to partner with Mercer and the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to find out just how widespread the issues are,” GFA Executive Director Lily Baucom said. “While we all agree more examination is needed, we hope this study will help us find ways to improve the landscape for farmers’ mental well-being.”
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.
“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 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.”
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.
“There was a scarcity of literature, and what literature there was focused mainly on suicide,” Basey said.
Montgomery 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 home/work life balance 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%).