The mental health of farm youth is often overlooked

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

“Agriculture is a uniquely stressful industry. “Individual growers are forced to deal with conditions that are completely out of their control,” says Josie Rudolfi, PhD, assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We know that all of these unique stressors are associated with mental illness symptoms. The risk of suicide is higher among people in agriculture than the rest of the population.”

Rudolfi says it’s important to recognize how interpersonal relationships between farm family members affect mental health. Family relationships contribute to different types of stress depending on where one falls in the hierarchy.

“A lot of what we know is focused on adults,” she says. “There are two million young people living or working on a farm. They often do farm work, are present in the environment and experience these stressful things, but are absent from research.”

That’s why Rudolfi and the University of Illinois recently conducted a study of the mental health of adolescents and adults on farms, funded by the National Children’s Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. Farm operators from across the country, their spouses and children between the ages of 13 and 17 were invited to complete an online survey.

What did you learn?

Rudolfi says more than 60 percent of the farm teens screened had self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. More than 10% of respondents said they had moderate to severe symptoms.

The study asked participants about different types of anxiety. About 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 the Program Manager for the Progressive Agriculture Foundation (PAF), which leads the Progressive Agriculture Safety Day program. PAF hosted a roundtable focused on the mental health of rural youth and farmers in late 2019. Rudolfi was one of the panelists.

Panelists discussed the additional stressors farm youth must deal with beyond their urban counterparts, including:

  • Bad weather and natural disasters

  • The prices of goods and the consequences for the financial situation of the family

  • Long working hours and lack of sleep

  • Pressure to complete tasks on time

  • More responsibilities

  • Negative interactions with those who do not understand or appreciate the agricultural industry

  • The pressure to keep the family farm going

  • Unable to do extracurricular activities due to farm responsibilities

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

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

Safety day activities include having children make their own stress ball, keeping a journal and seeing how many balloons each child can juggle. Balloons represent stressors. “It’s not that hard with one or two, but very hard with three or four,” says Davidson. “Our takeaway is that it’s okay to ask for help. Children are visual, so this helps bring it to life.”

What can parents do?

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

Role models: She says the most important thing parents can do is model good behavior when it comes to looking after their own mental health. When children see their parents taking care of themselves, adopting coping strategies like journaling or yoga, being kind, taking a break from social media and technology, asking for help and sharing their stories, it encourages them to do the same. “We hope that we can do a better job of taking care of our own mental health and that the young people in our lives who look up to us will, too,” she says.

Peach and Stone: Each day, everyone in the family can share the best (peach) and worst (hoof) parts of their day. Actively listening to your children’s responses and openly sharing your own will help build trust and open the lines of communication, she says.

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 right before bed. “Ask them questions, be there for them and just be present,” Davidson says.

Consider social media: Social media means that today’s children can be bullied outside the school corridors. Every time they look at their cell phones or computers, they may be faced with a bully, or at least with added pressure to look and act a certain way. Limiting phone use before bed is key, says Davidson. “Remember these nine vital minutes,” she says. “If social media is their last three minutes before bed and there’s bullying or unrealistic expectations, it can be hard to fall asleep afterwards.”

Rudolph agrees with these strategies. “We saw a significant relationship between parental and adolescent health. This shows that 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 seeing among youth, so having programs like what PAF is developing is so important.”

Organize a Safety Day

Progressive Farm Safety Days are one-day events that teach school-age children lessons that can help them stay safe on the farm. Events can be located in schools or elsewhere in the community and can be private or public. Participants are divided into small groups that alternate between stations where they participate 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 organize your own Safety Day.

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