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Farm youth mental health often overlooked

Mental health has come to the forefront in recent years, including the mental health of farmers and others involved in agriculture.

"Agriculture is a uniquely stressful industry. Individual producers are forced to reckon with conditions that are completely out of their control," says Josie Rudolphi, PhD, an assistant professor and Extension specialist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "We know that all of these unique stressors are associated with symptoms of mental health conditions. Being at risk for suicide is higher among those in agriculture than the rest of the population."

Rudolphi says it's important to acknowledge how interpersonal relationships among farm family members affect mental health. Family relationships contribute to different types of stress depending on where a person falls in the hierarchy. 

"A lot of what we know has been focused on adults," she says. "There are two million youth living or working on a farm. They are often doing farm work, are present in the environment, and are experiencing these stressful things, but have been absent from research."

That's why Rudolphi and the University of Illinois recently conducted the Farm Adolescent and Adult Mental Health Study, funded by the National Children's Center for Rural Agricultural Health and Safety. Farm operators from around the country, their spouses, and children between the ages of 13 and 17 were invited to complete an online survey. 

What was learned

Rudolphi says more than 60% of farm adolescents screened showed self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. More than 10% of respondents said they experienced moderately severe to severe symptoms.

The study asked participants about different types of anxiety. Around 60% reported panic disorder or significant somatic symptoms, 45% generalized anxiety disorder, 68% separation anxiety disorder, 39% social anxiety disorder, and 50% school avoidance.

More insight

Jana Davidson is program manager for the Progressive Agriculture Foundation (PAF), overseeing the Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program. PAF hosted a roundtable focused on the mental health of rural and farming youth in late 2019. Rudolphi was one of the panelists. 

The roundtable participants discussed the additional stressors that farm youth have to deal with, beyond their urban counterparts, including:

  • Bad weather and natural disasters
  • Commodity prices and the implications on the family's financial situation
  • Long work hours and lack of sleep
  • Pressure to complete tasks on time
  • More responsibilities
  • Negative interactions with those who don't understand or appreciate the ag industry
  • The pressure to carry on the family farm
  • The inability to have extra-curricular activities because of farm responsibilities

As a result of the roundtable discussion, and after a brief pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PAF is now implementing a mental well-being and stress management curriculum into its Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program. "We looked at our program and had a very strong emphasis on safety, but not mental health," Davidson says.

The team at PAF created age-appropriate resources that can be implemented with other activities at Safety Day events. The curriculum aims to help young participants understand stress and their emotions, make the connection between mental and physical health, break the stigma around mental health, and identify coping strategies. Participants are sent home with additional resources.

Safety Day activities include having kids make their own stress ball, journaling, and seeing how many balloons each child can juggle. The balloons represent stressors. "It's not so hard with one or two, but very hard with three or four," Davidson says. "Our takeaway is that it's OK to ask for help. Kids are visual so this helps bring it to life."

What can parents do?

Davidson recommends these easy-to-implement strategies to parents:

Role modeling: She says the most important thing parents can do is model good behavior when it comes to taking care of their own mental health. When children see their parents practicing self-care, adopting coping strategies like journaling or yoga, being kind, taking breaks from social media and technology, asking for help, and sharing their stories, it encourages them to do the same. "Hopefully we can do a better job of taking care of our own mental health and the young people in our lives looking up to us will too," she says.

Peach and pit: Each day, everyone in the family can share the best (peach) and worst (pit) parts of their day. She says actively listening to your children's answers and openly sharing your own will help build trust and open the lines of communication.

9 vital minutes: The most important minutes of the day for children are the three minutes when they first wake up, the three minutes when they get home from school, and the three minutes just before bedtime. "Ask them questions, be there for them, and just be present," Davidson says. 

Mind social media: Social media means today's kids can be bullied beyond the school hallways. Whenever they look at their cell phones or computers, they may be faced with a bully or at least additional pressure to look and act a certain way. Limiting phone use before bed is key, Davidson says. "Remember those nine vital minutes," she says. "If social media is their last three minutes before bed and there's bullying or unrealistic expectations going on, it can be tough to fall asleep after that."

Rudolphi agrees with these strategies. "We saw a significant correlation between parent and adolescent health. That goes to show we need parents to model health coping strategies including self-care and other valuable management strategies," she says. "I think we can all recognize the mental health crisis we're observing among youth, so having programs like what PAF is developing is so important."

Host a Safety Day

Progressive Agriculture Safety Days are one-day events that teach school-age children lessons that can help keep them safe on the farm. The events can be located at schools or elsewhere in the community, and can be private or public. Participants are divided into small groups, which rotate between stations where they take part in different lessons and activities.

In addition to mental health, topics include ATV safety, first aid, safety around animals, PTO safety, hidden hazards, and tractor safety. Learn more about the project and sign up to volunteer or host your own Safety Day.

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