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Facing Mental Health Issues Head On

While multi-generation farmers may have advantages like land and capital, there may be more pressure to succeed. PHOTO BY NICOLE ZIMA

Jan/Feb 2023

Farm family seeks help, finds healing in the season of crisis

by Nicole Zima, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation

Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” Jane suddenly didn’t recognize the man she married when an unforeseen emotional crisis blindsided the Central Virginia farm family in 2020.

It was during busy harvest season when John became increasingly agitated over a seemingly inconsequential personal matter. Negative emotions he’d buried years in the past were triggered unknowingly and came barreling back with frightening intensity.

“It was a slow-motion trainwreck,” John recalls. “I knew my thoughts were irrational, but it didn’t matter. The train left the station and there was no stopping it until it derailed.”


While dealing with farm stress was nothing new, John’s outburst, followed by an inconsolable emotional state was completely out of character.

“If we didn’t deal with it, eventually it could have broken our marriage,” Jane says.

Weather, equipment breakdowns and a disrupted supply chain, plus the global pandemic, were already creating pressure.

“The money has been forked out to grow that crop,” John says. “It’s capital intensive, with so much out of our control that still impacts the bottom line.”

Now imagine a trampoline stretched tight and then an elephant drops out of the sky, Jane explains. “That’s how it was for us,” she says. “And we didn’t see it coming.”


John called a Richmond friend and disclosed his struggle.

“The next day he was at my house and rode the combine with me all day,” he recalls. “It was very reassuring that I wasn’t in this alone.”

Jane reached out to other friends who helped John find a therapist willing to take new patients. He began telehealth appointments.

With defined goals, new coping tools and a fresh perspective, John’s mindset improved.


While multi-generation farmers may have advantages like land and capital, there is more pressure to succeed, John says. One of his grandfathers died by suicide, and a great-grandfather was institutionalized after losing his farm.

“I’d like to think we’re more open and accepting to talking about this than previous generations,” he says.

A recent American Farm Bureau Federation research poll found that farmers and rural residents are more comfortable than they used to be talking about stress and mental health challenges with others, and stigma around seeking help or treatment has decreased in rural and farm communities, though still a factor.

John’s message to the agricultural community — be vulnerable with each other.

“They’re probably fighting something themselves,” he concludes. “And it might start an important conversation.”

New mental health resource available to Virginia farmers

Last summer, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services launched the AgriStress Helpline in Virginia to provide the commonwealth’s agricultural producers with mental health support in a specific area of the state.

The AgriStress Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and has interpretation services for 160 languages. Farmers can call or text 833-897-2474 to speak directly with a healthcare professional. Crisis specialists have access to a Virginia-specific curated database of agricultural and health resources.

Visit afe.org/agristress-helpline to learn more.