Advocates work to help farmers overcome mental health issues

As winter approaches, mental health experts say they are stepping up efforts to reach farmers who may need help coping with isolation.

NY FarmNet, based at Cornell University, is a grassroots group that offers resources for farmers who lack a support network. The CDC says farmers are 150% more likely to die by suicide than the general population.

Doreen Barker gets into her truck. (Emily Kenny/Spectrum News 1)

“I’ve never met a farmer who didn’t like to talk, and he spends most of his working hours alone,” said Becky Wiseman, clinical social worker at NY FarmNet. “The stressors that they have, whether it’s dairy or crops, and having to deal with rising prices, whether it’s just dealing with the weather, they don’t have that network of support systems to lean on and they’re taught generation after generation, you’re tough, you can do it and so they’re self-focused and isolated.

NY FarmNet offers mental health first aid courses and works with farmers to improve their finances, business planning and personal well-being.

Wiseman invited anyone working in agriculture to attend the classes, even if they are not farmers. People who work in the industry interact with farmers on a daily basis, so they may notice signs and symptoms before others.

Doreen Barker, who started Barrows Farm near Lisle in 2008, said a farmer’s job is often misunderstood. Farmers don’t get days off very easily, the hours are long and the cycle of tasks is endless. To create a community for women farmers, Barker created a Facebook group called NY Farm Women.

A portrait of Doreen (second from left) with her daughter and two close friends. They have coordinated weekly outings to Doreen’s barn to discuss the issues they face working in agriculture.. (Emily Kenny/Spectrum News 1)

“We don’t have holidays, we don’t have Sundays, we don’t have rainy days,” Barker said. “I felt bad and still had to go to work that day.”

There’s a continuous cycle of things to do, so it’s hard to take time off or go on vacation.

“There’s never an appropriate time to be down because there’s always something to do,” Barker said. “Especially here in New York, where we have four seasons.”

Cattle at Doreen’s farm. (Emily Kenny/Spectrum News 1)

Barker said she developed strong relationships with other female farmers who helped her maintain her mental health. She is grateful for the efforts of organizations like NY FarmNet to also help others with their mental health.

Wiseman, who teaches mental health first aid classes at NY FarmNet, said she hopes those who enroll in the classes will learn to see mental health issues without the stigma that often accompanies them.

Doreen’s daughter and two close friends ride in the back of her truck. (Emily Kenny/Spectrum News 1)

“I hope they will be able to see new personal resources that they can use when working with farmers and listening, with all of their senses,” she said.

Other agencies that work with farmers said the courses have enhanced their skills.

Casandra Vernon is a farm credit officer with the USDA Farm Service Agency. Its job is to provide financing to farmers who cannot obtain financing elsewhere.

Doreen watches the pasture towards her cattle. (Emily Kenny/Spectrum News 1)

“Awareness is super essential in any field, but we as farm loan officers tend to deliver bad news,” Vernon said. “Taking a course like this really helps us deal with the emotions our borrowers might feel when we deliver such news.”

Mary Ellen Sheehan is the Madison County CCE Agricultural and Horticultural Educator who took the NY FarmNet course.

“I wanted to have better skills and know how to help people,” Sheehan said. “It’s hard to be a farmer and a business owner right now.”

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