Jeff Bender standing in front of a silo on the St. Paul campus.

Talking farmer mental health with Jeff Bender

Charlie Plain | February 25, 2020

March 1-7, 2020, is Agriculture Safety Awareness Week, which was created to raise awareness of safety and health issues facing the agriculture industry. One of the week’s themes is mental health.

Professor Jeff Bender, with the School of Public Health’s Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH), talks about unique challenges farmers face that may affect their mental health, signs someone may be struggling with their mental health and resources available.

Q: What is mental health?
Prof. Bender:
 Our mental health is comprised of both our psychological and emotional well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act during every moment of our day. From childhood through adulthood, our mental health is important as it can have profound effects on how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.

Q: What challenges do farmers face that may affect their mental health?
Prof. Bender:
 American farmers and their families face a number of challenges. This can include financial hardship and uncertainty, adverse weather events, social isolation, long days and chronic pain. These, coupled with misunderstandings by the general public about their work, can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Q: What are signs that someone may be struggling with their mental health?
Prof. Bender: There are several physical and behavioral signs that can indicate someone may be struggling with their mental health. Behavioral signs can include:

  • worrying about things you didn’t worry about before;
  • losing interest in things you used to enjoy (e.g., hobbies) or wanting to withdraw from people and activities;
  • poor concentration, confusion and forgetfulness;
  • uncertainty or trouble making decisions;
  • relationship problems;
  • a sad mood, feeling anxious or negative thinking;
  • change in personality and irritability;
  • increased smoking/drinking.

Physical signs can include:

  • poor or disturbed sleep;
  • weight loss or gain;
  • changes in appetite;
  • stomach or gastrointestinal problems;
  • clenching or grinding teeth;
  • chest pain;
  • poor hygiene.

Q: If you think a loved one is struggling with their mental health, what should you do?
Prof. Bender: I would recommend doing several things, with the first step being checking-in with your loved one and asking if they are okay. Be sure to listen attentively, without judgement, and discuss your concerns. Encourage them to take action and reach out to someone they feel comfortable seeking assistance with such as a family member, friend, clergy or confidant. Being connected and having social support structures is important.

Q: What is UMASH doing to promote farmer mental health?
Prof. Bender:
 UMASH has been working to build partnerships to stimulate innovation and action in response to growing concerns about the lack of resources and support for farmers, farm workers and families who are facing difficult economic conditions in the region, as well as the higher rates of suicide in rural and agricultural communities.

Among our efforts are:

Jeff Bender is a professor and director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the School of Public Health and an adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. His areas of expertise include epidemiology, infection control and prevention, designing and evaluating surveillance programs, and the development of educational outreach programs.

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