UGA Extension Has Active Voice in Starting Conversation about Rural Stress

Clint Thompson

Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

Farmers are extended family for University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents throughout the state, and agents are uniquely positioned to raise awareness about rural stress and mental health concerns for Georgia farmers.

Agents put time, attention and knowledge into helping producers make everyday decisions that affect their livelihoods and relationships, and this forges trust, according to Echols County Extension Coordinator Justin Shealey.

“I see the same market data they do. I know what market prices are. I know that when I’m looking out my window and it’s not raining, their dryland crops are suffering,” Shealey said. “I know what they’re going through.”

But it’s not enough that UGA Extension agents be sympathetic with local farmers’ daily concerns. They need to be ready to direct their growers to appropriate medical professionals if concerns are warranted. With suicide rates among Georgia farmers on the rise, UGA Extension is key to starting the conversation about stress and mental health in rural Georgia, says Andrea Scarrow, UGA Extension Southwest District director.

“Farm families are the most resilient people we know. They’re used to carrying more day-to-day stress than most people, and they do extremely well with it, but that doesn’t negate the need that goes along with that,” Scarrow said.

Scarrow is part of a coalition of southwest Georgia partners formed to educate farmers about the negative impact of rural stress. The group includes Extension personnel and administrative leaders from UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, College of Family and Consumer Sciences and School of Social Work.

“It’s like Dr. (Mark) McCann says to farmers, ‘You are the greatest resource your farm has. You take care of the maintenance on your tractors, you need to take care of yourself,’” Scarrow said. “That’s really the way that we’re messaging it.”

The message was clear at the Rural Stress Summit held in Atlanta in December 2018 to bring the issue to the forefront. It will also be a point of emphasis at the upcoming UGA Extension winter production meetings, where publication resources for addressing rural stress will be available.

“We’ve been working every way we can about how to have this conversation because no one wants to talk about this. Nobody wants to talk about high stress and the risk of suicide,” said Anna Scheyett, dean of the UGA School of Social Work. “But if you don’t talk about it, then how are you going to help people?”

Scheyett cited a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that revealed that farming, fishing and forestry posted the third-highest suicide rate of any occupation. Among Georgia workers in that occupational group, the suicide rate is 50.7 per 100,000 compared to 14.9 per 100,000 for the overall population of workers, according to the report.

During the upcoming winter production meetings in Colquitt, Mitchell and Echols counties — all located in the Southwest District — health professionals from area hospitals will be on hand to offer blood pressure checks and provide wellness updates as part of a pilot program.

“The key for us is we can rely on the medical field for their expertise,” Scarrow said. “We feel like we can be that connector piece and promote it.”

For Southwest District Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Development Coordinator Ronnie Barentine, farmer suicide is an unrelenting reality that haunts him every day. He experienced two farmer deaths in his county while serving as an Extension agent. It changed his perspective on how agents should work with their growers.

“We need to try to be an encouragement to farmers, so when they come in the office and they’re down and out, just try to be positive and keep the conversation positive and upbeat,” Barentine said. “‘Yeah, it’s tough, but there’s going to be a better day. There’s a better day coming.’”

Unfortunately, better days are almost impossible for farmers to project because Mother Nature remains the biggest obstacle. From 2016 through 2018, Georgia experienced hurricanes for three straight years, with Hurricane Michael causing the most destruction in 2018.

“In 2018, that was the year we were going to see light at the end of the tunnel. Pretty much every acre in Georgia was irrigated. It rained a half of an inch every other day. We were signing contracts for 80 and 90 cents for cotton. Then you get knocked to the dirt by a hurricane, the third one in a row to hit our state,” Shealey said.

This year’s weather challenge, a two-month-long drought in the fall, hindered production for crops like cotton, peanuts and pecans. Commodity prices remain well below what producers desire for their crops. Dealing with all of these external factors inevitably causes farmers stress.

“Farming is the only profession I can think of where you can do everything right and work 24/7 and make all the best decisions and have all the best equipment and still go bankrupt,” Scheyett said. “There’s so much out of your control.”