Nicole Tommell knows well the financial challenges today’s farmers face. But over the last few years, Tommell – an agricultural business management specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension – has seen those challenges mutate and multiply, requiring her to develop an essential new skill: mental health first aid.
“The agriculture industry was already under enormous pressure from things like environmental stressors, low commodity prices and tight margins,” said Tommell. “Then COVID hit. The bottom just dropped out.
“Livestock farmers couldn’t ship their animals to processing facilities because of shutdowns. We saw dairy farmers forced to dump their milk. And if they’re dumping milk, they’re not getting paid,” she said.
The financial stress was exacerbated by the health and family turmoil created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, farming and ranching has one of the highest suicide rates of all occupations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in January 2022 suicide rates for agriculture workers were 36 per 100,000.
“We’ve had farmers take their lives,” Tommell said. “We’ve seen an uptick in opioid addiction and alcohol abuse. We don’t talk about it because it doesn’t match the idyllic vision of farm lifestyle we have, but our farmers struggle with depression and anxiety the same as general population, while also dealing with the uncertainties of the ag industry.”
After seeing COVID’s impact on New York farm families, Tommell sought training from New York Farm Net to become a certified mental health first aid instructor through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. NY FarmNet, a collaboration between the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, offers mental health first aid trainings at CCE offices across the state to people like Tommell as well as industry professionals who interface with farms.
The program helps these workers recognize and respond to mental health issues specific to farmers and their families. The group also provides free and confidential support to any farmer, farm worker or agribusiness employee in the state.
NY FarmNet staffs its 1-800 number 24 hours a day, with answering services if no one is immediately available, said Kendra Janssen, its office manager. Consultants usually reach out within 24 hours to help callers.
“It’s a really unique program in that we send both the business consultant and the mental health or family consultant together as a team,” Janssen said. “Cornell is the only land-grand university with such a program in place.”
Becky Wiseman, a licensed therapist who is one of NY Farm Net’s consultants, works alongside agriculture business specialists to guide farmers, producers and workers through rough patches. Together they address the problems holistically – offering emotional support alongside business and financial advice.
“Often we go into a home thinking that they need help addressing some financial issue. And then we find out that somebody in the family just died, or the marriage is in trouble,” she said.
Because the nature of farming can lead to feelings of social isolation, Wiseman said farmers often do not feel like they have anyone to talk to about their issues.
“And the stigma that's attached to seeking mental health care is significant,” she said. “We hear farmers and farm families that don’t want others in the community to see their truck parked in front of a mental health center. I have met with farmers at a fire station because they did not want their family or their workers to know they were seeking help.”
Tommell said CCE specialists are well-positioned to help farm families access NY FarmNet support. “We notice things when we’re out in the field. Maybe a strain in relationships between spouses or children, people not caring for themselves or their animals,” she said. “It’s our job to help. By going through this training you may be able to pick up on those more subtle signs and help folks earlier.”
The mental health first aid course provides mental health first responders with the tools to help engage farmers who are showing signs of stress. “We talk about the importance of early intervention, and how to listen nonjudgmentally, to assess the situation, to give reassurance that there is help and encourage appropriate professional help,” Wiseman said. “We don’t diagnose, don’t even look at why people get into stressful situations. We look at the specific steps that we need to take as first responders in a mental health situation that may help a farmer in distress.”
The training also helps first responders interact with their own feelings when encountering difficult situations. “Those of us working closely with the ag community over the past few years have been feeling burned out and exhausted, walking into sad situations and taking that home with us,” Tommell said. “For me personally, taking this training gave me tools to better cope with that.”
Tommell believes destigmatizing mental health and normalizing assistance is a huge obstacle that must be overcome. “We all know someone who has been touched by mental health problems, depression, suicide, alcohol or opioid addiction,” she said. “We have to just bring that to the forefront, talk about it and create pathways to help. And the mental health first aid training is a great step toward achieving that.”
Hear more about helping New York state's farmers navigate mental health challenges on CCE's Extension Out Loud podcast.