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Fighting emotional strain of drought

Jeff Caldwell 10/08/2012 @ 10:29am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

This year's crops and livestock have fallen victim to the worst drought in decades. But, so too have the men and women who raise them. That emotional toll is often overlooked by a lot of farmers whose independent nature makes it difficult to acknowledge it as a strain that could have serious health ramifications down the road.

"Farmers often feel responsible for getting everything done and being in control of everything, and in a case like the drought, you're not in control," says Roberta Schweitzer, a Purdue University nursing specialist and mental health expert. "There's a stigma attached to mental illness, and farmers don't want to be identified with that. They like to think they're able to function and take care of their families."

But after a year like the one many farmers have faced this year, the usual stress of raising a crop can grow into something much more profound, manifested by a range of behaviors from anxiety and depression to more severe substance abuse and even thoughts of suicide. Regardless of the severity of these feelings, family members and friends should take it on themselves to intervene somehow if they suspect a farmer is fighting a tough time emotionally because of the added strain of a short crop year.

"If someone is depressed, they may be withdrawing, not taking care of themselves, not eating properly, sleeping all the time, starting to drink or use drugs, and pretty much giving up," Schweitzer says in a university report. "If someone is in that position, you'll want them to know that you are concerned and offer to help them be assessed for suicide risk because there's the potential of that occurring."

If you notice a farmer friend or family member is exhibiting signs of depression or similar feelings, Schweitzer recommends encouraging the following:

  • Good health habits, including proper nutrition, exercise and adequate rest.
  • Quality time with family and friends.
  • Identifying personal stress "triggers" and activities that can provide relief.

"Another thing to do is make a list of what in your life you have control of and what you can't control," she says. "If you can do something about those things on the list, then do it. If you can't do anything - and the drought falls into that category - then don't beat yourself up over it. Not being able to do something doesn't mean you are weak or incapable. It means you're human."

It's also helpful to look ahead and consider how you could or might take on tough circumstances like this year's drought, in terms of its mental health ramifications. Ohio State University Certified Family Life Educator James Bates says the following steps can help reduce the negative effects of a bout with depression or anxiety brought on by something like the drought of 2012.

  • Make meaning out of adversity and challenge
  • Maintain a positive outlook
  • Rely on spirituality and higher power
  • Be flexible to change
  • Remain connected with others
  • Obtain support through social and economic sources
  • Communicate clear, consistent messages
  • Openly share emotions
  • Problem solve collaboratively

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