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Current farm economy may trigger behavioral distress

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Farm economists and lenders last October estimated that about 20 percent of farmers would have difficulty paying annual farm operating and/or long-term loan obligations which are due this year. The emails and phone calls I have received lately bear out their estimates.

Farming overall is in a recession. Specialized producers with ready customers for their goods, wealthy producers with cash reserves, and still others are faring satisfactorily.

The economists and lenders whom I interviewed earlier estimated that half of "under-water" agricultural loan holders (10 percent overall) would possibly be able to secure back-up assistance from another source. Some would figure out a plan to improve total household income or downsize without taking bankruptcy.

These predictions, if accurate, suggest that the remaining 10 percent of farm operators may face financial foreclosure or major restructuring this year. Many of these overwhelmed farmers will develop serious stress that may require medical and/or behavioral healthcare.

Last week's article reviewed procedures that can guide borrowers and lenders as they seek resolutions for producers who are facing possible liquidation.

Today, we look at signals of behavioral distress.

Usually the borrowers and their families experience the most distress, but lenders and others associated with the threatening situation sometimes also become troubled. I received reports of distraught farmers who ended their lives recently in Kansas and Iowa and a currently rising rate of suicide overall.

Danger signals of excessive stress, as suggested from research, clinical observations by family survivors, and professional caregivers including myself, encompass, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Avoidance of appearing at usual social and public events such as church, kids' sports and school activities, and family gatherings
  • Isolation, retreating behavior, flat affect
  • Deterioration in appearance of the livestock or farm, high somatic cell counts in dairy milk, overly grazed pastures, or farm machinery and buildings that appear in disrepair, which lenders and other concerned people can view for themselves if they visit the farm operation
  • Decline in personal appearance, such as disheveled clothing, weight loss or hefty weight gain
  • When three or more stresses occur simultaneously (e.g., natural disasters, death or divorce in the family, disease outbreaks in livestock or crops, personal illness, etc.) most people can manage two simultaneous stresses, but when a third occurs they are pushed beyond their coping capacity
  • When anyone volunteers, or admits when asked, to persistent trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much beyond usual
  • Inability to perform usual functions, such as making a decision, because of emotional paralysis

There are five danger signals that require immediate attention:

  • If a person verbalizes hopelessness such as "It's no use trying anymore," or "I feel like giving up"
  • When someone has not laughed hard or taken pleasure in anything for three weeks or longer, or repeatedly says something like "Nothing is fun"
  • When a person makes threats such as "I feel like shooting all my cattle," or "I'm going to get that jerk if it's the last thing I do"
  • When someone says he/she feels near tears, with a "lump in the throat" but can't cry
  • Reports no sleep for 60 hours or more

When any of these immediate danger signals are observed, they suggest the distraught person isn't able to think clearly and needs to be with someone until the person is under follow-up care, which may include hospitalization.

It's possible that use of alcohol, street or prescribed drugs, or exposure to toxic chemicals such as certain insecticides, could be clouding this person's judgment in addition to overwhelming stress. I learned this "the hard way."

A person referred to me called for an appointment only hours before he took his life. He hadn't slept for two successive nights and was on his way to visit his doctor, which I thought was a step in the right direction. We set an appointment for the next morning.

Highly successful, this man was troubled with self-doubts about farming decisions he had made and worried unnecessarily how others perceived him in his community. Little did I know until later, he had been exposed to agricultural pesticides that may have worsened his self-recrimination and judgment.

We should request help from professionals and trusted affiliates alike and ask them if they know what to look for when farmers are excessively stressed. We can't wait for self-harm to occur when we recognize one of these indicators.

Requesters can ask the physicians and emergency personnel they approach if they know about agricultural health issues, such as pesticide effects, from experience or agricultural medicine courses they have completed. About 500 physicians, nurses and other professionals in the U.S. have attended and passed this training.

If requesters can't find necessary assistance, they should maintain personal surveillance until the crisis subsides. Sometimes, caregivers can do nothing to prevent self-harm, for suicide even occurs in hospitals.

Then, forgiveness of our loved one and ourselves may be all we can do. More next week.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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