RCIS Joins in #AgMentalHealthWeek

Published online: Oct 13, 2020 Articles
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A farmer for 20 years and a crop insurance claim adjuster for 17, Lew Robbennolt knows how difficult it can be for farmers to manage occupational stress — and to seek and find mental health support when they need it.

That’s one reason Robbennolt, a South Dakota-based adjuster for Zurich crop insurance provider RCIS, didn’t hesitate when he was asked to participate in a panel discussion for the first ever Ag Mental Health Week, created by a farmer in Ireland to raise awareness of mental health needs and resources for farmers around the world.

Stress is not new to farming, given the outsized impact of uncontrollable forces such as weather and pricing. In recent years, however, the stress has intensified for U.S. farmers with the increase in severe weather events, the effects of trade tensions with China, and the combination of falling commodity prices and rising costs of equipment and fertilizer. COVID-19 added hardship. Less driving meant reduced demand for biofuels made of grains such as corn. Restaurant shutdowns cut demand for meat, dairy and specialty crops.

From 2014 to 2018, more than 450 farmers died of suicide across nine Midwestern states while calls to Farm Aid's crisis hotline doubled, according to a 2020 report from USA TODAY Network and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations, according to the report.

Crop adjusters like Robbennolt are in a unique position to hear and see the stresses that farmers face. Called to assess damage from hail, wind or excessive moisture, crop adjusters often drive with the farmer out to the fields. Along the way, farmers often open up about financial distress, isolation and inner turmoil. They talk about their obligation to sustain a farming legacy that in some cases goes back generations, which some call the “agrarian imperative.” They may confide thoughts of suicide over their fear of failure and a sense that farming is all they know.

“Everyone knows everybody in a small town; that’s part of the trouble with mental health in rural America,” Robbennolt said. “If you need help, the mere idea that you’re going to see a mental health professional is a pretty high hurdle. And that’s saying they’re available. Where I live in Agar, South Dakota, available counselors may be hours away.”

Robbennolt has a personal connection to the issue. His maternal grandfather took his life during the Great Depression. “It affected the way we were raised,” Robbennolt said. “Our mother was loving but her attitude about hard times was to buck up and be tough, and if you’re hurting, keep it inside.”

Through a series of panels and other virtual events, Ag Mental Health Week aims to lift the stigma from seeking help for mental health issues and to raise awareness of resources to help farmers who are struggling.

The idea came from Peter Hynes, a dairy farmer in southwest Ireland who with his wife was named Zurich Ireland’s Farmer of the Year in 2017. Along with Rugby Players Ireland, Hynes has become an ambassador for #TackleYourFeelings, a mental health and wellbeing campaign supported by Zurich Ireland and the Z Zurich Foundation. The Z Zurich Foundation is helping to raise awareness of Ag Mental Health Week too.

“I previously struggled with depression,” Hynes said. “I spoke openly about it in 2017 and I along with my wife have done all we can since to raise awareness. Farm safety gets more discussion, but increased mental health awareness actually leads to safer farms too, as farmers will have better focus if they prioritize their mental well-being.”

Hynes said when he first spoke of mental health on social media, he was overwhelmed by people who reached out saying they were suffering. “That was a huge eye opener that if I could speak more openly it might be able to help people get pointed in the right direction and get back in a better place,” Hynes said.

He and his wife have since spoken at conferences, universities and other venues, along with conceiving Ag Mental Health Week just weeks ago. They scheduled it for the week following World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10. (Search and follow #AgMentalHealthWeek on social media channels for more information on virtual events and resources.)

“We said if Ag Mental Health Week 2020 merely saved one farmer’s life, it was worth running,” Hynes said. “Our goals for the next 12 months are to get a website running and a comprehensive list of global support numbers.”

The U.S. Congress has proposed legislation designed to improve access to mental health resources and reduce the stigma of seeking help in rural communities. The Seeding Rural Resilience Act was included in each chamber’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The two chambers must approve a single version before it would go to the president for his signature.

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