Rosmann: The good news about depression in farmers

Depression is an overused word today.

Depression is an overused word today. It can mean many things, such as referring to an economic slump, temporarily downcast emotional feelings or a diagnosed mental health condition.
The range of feelings we routinely call “depressed” can vary from unhappy to completely lacking hope and desire to continue living.
The type of depression I am concerned about is the behavioral health condition.
But there are several positive developments concerning the occurrence and management of depression in the agricultural population.
Depression among farmers has recently gotten necessary attention in the media.
An April 24 Newsweek cover story, an Oct. 6 Scientific American article and several features over the past year on popular American and Canadian televised agricultural programs are examples of media attention to unusually high rates of depression and suicide among farmers around the world.
The agrarian imperative, an inherited urge that impels farmers to acquire the resources to farm and to produce essentials for life (e.g., food, fibers and renewable fuels), offers an explanation for why depression and self-imposed death occur unusually frequently in agriculturalists.
Three lines of research that were indicated in the April-June 2010 issue of the Journal of Agromedicine that support the agrarian imperative explanation:

  • Historical evidence indicates that development of agricultural practices such as raising crops and livestock greatly contributed to the advancement of modern humans over preceding hunter-gatherers, verifying that agricultural skills have survival value and are learned acquisitions
  • Genetic research confirms that acquired skills can become integrated into the genetic memory of DNA and passed along to successors, such as the tendencies of successful farmers to be somewhat hyperactive, to take unusual risks and to work to hang onto the farm during stressful times to the point of emotional exhaustion
  • Investigation of personality factors associated with success in agricultural occupations – including lumber harvest, fishing and hunting –indicates agricultural producers have an inordinate tolerance for adversity, persist more strongly than most other people in their occupational efforts, tend to rely heavily on their own judgment, take risks more frequently than most people and are able to work in isolation, sometimes to their detriment

The “negative” parts of this explanation are that the people involved in agriculture don’t readily reach out for help while taking unusual risks and working exorbitantly. As a consequence, those of us who love and live with them are too often not aware of their desperate internal struggles. Changing the negative behaviors associated with the agrarian imperative is possible for farmers, as well as recommended. Moreover, family, work associates and friends can look for the signs of depression, sleeplessness and agitation in themselves and others.
Farmers must be willing to incorporate healthful behaviors into their daily lives, thereby increasing their likelihood of surviving and succeeding. Likewise, those of us who live and work with agricultural producers on a daily basis must be willing to take action to seek help when our loved ones don’t manage themselves sufficiently well.
Agriculture has become a social occupation in most of the modern world, for farmers are highly dependent on interactions with others, such as crop and livestock advisers, financiers, marketers and people in farmer and political organizations.
Now if only farmers would reach out to the specialists who can assist agricultural producers understand and modify their tendencies to overly indulge in work, to take risks and to not reveal their stresses when appropriate.
We control these behaviors.
Dealing successfully with depression and urges toward self-harm can make us stronger and greatly empower us, like President Abraham Lincoln learned when he struggled with his emotional illness. He acquired the capacity and tenacity to endure extreme stress and criticism, and to become the most “healing” U.S. president, in the opinion of a great many Americans today (See the “Farm and Ranch Life” article published in early February 2013 for more information about Lincoln’s depression).
Agricultural courses in high school, vocational schools and college can help farm people by incorporating the information of this and the previous columns on depression into their courses to make agriculture safer and healthier.
I owe a debt of gratitude to several people for urging and helping me to develop this series of columns, notably many researchers of depression, suicide and their occurrence in the agricultural population, as well as certain colleagues in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, the staff and directors of AgriWellness, Inc., several brave survivors whose mates were farmers who ended their lives and several people who review my draft articles.
Cheryl Beseler and Lorann Stallones of Colorado State University and the Dutch anthropologist Lizzy van Leeuwen have particularly inspired me. And so has Ginnie, a widow who has dedicated herself to alerting people about farmer suicide and its prevention.
This is the last in a series of “Farm and Ranch Life” articles about the serious problems of farming-related depression and suicide.

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

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