Studies have found the rates of mental illness and suicide are higher for farmers. They work long hours, have limited social contact and are at the mercy of factors such as weather. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is creating even greater challenges to their livelihood—and mental health.
Bill Tentinger has been a hog farmer in Iowa for 50 years. He’s been through droughts, market crashes and even other viral outbreaks. But he said this pandemic is even worse.
"We’ve experienced everything and I gotta tell you I have never seen anything like this in all the years that I've operated," he says Tentinger, who also is a member of the National Pork Board.
U.S. pork processing facilities have slowed due to COVID-19 outbreaks in the workforce. So, he’s been struggling with what to do with 2,500 excess pigs—with no end in sight.
"You know if we don't get more of a move to the next group of pigs moves up and that number is going to start increasing," he says.
Tentinger says cramming them into pens isn’t good for their health and not being able to sell them is taking a heavy toll on his farm. "Basically I'm using up my retirement plan to, you know, to continue to operate."
Many farmers like Tentinger are under an extreme amount of stress these days.
"We may see more concerns related to alcohol abuse concerns related to depression, some forms of trauma if they are euthanizing livestock, things like that," says David Brown, a behavioral health specialist with Iowa State University Extension. "We're also concerned about a potential spike in suicides."
The financial toll across the nation has already been devastating. There’s been a significant increase in family farms going bankrupt.
In the Midwest, more than 300 family farms filed for bankruptcy in the 12-month period that ended in March. That was a 42 percent jump.
Mental health advocates say this financial stress can quickly trickle down.
"Those financial concerns will always lead to, you know, relationship issues, issues within the family, concerns about how they're going to continue to be able to keep on farming," says Tammy Jacobs, the coordinator of the Iowa Concern hotline, which helps farmers with financial, legal and mental health concerns.
Jacobs says Iowa Concern is creating a new state-funded program to help farmers deal with the effects of COVID-19. One part of the program is when farmers call in for financial help, they’ll be steered toward mental health counseling.
But some farmers also may be facing traumatic experiences from having to do things like euthanize healthy animals.
"They're going to be reflecting back on all the things they're going through, and some of them are definitely going to have PTSD," says Ted Matthews, the director of Minnesota Rural Mental Health.
He says it can be hard for them to seek help. That’s because so many feel their outcome—and even their identity—is tied to working hard.
"I have found that in working with farmers, you have to look at them differently than then other occupations," Matthews says. "Because to them, it's not an occupation. It's a way of life."
Many farmers need to learn to cope with the things they don’t have control over, he says.
Jewell farmer Kevin Dietzel says it took him awhile to seek help for his depression, which started when he opened his dairy farm a few years ago. He struggled working long hours all alone while making no profit.
"That's when depression started to really kick in and a really hard way, and then I started to have days where I almost couldn't get up and function," he says.
Dietzel understands why many farmers might not seek help—even now. "There's still a lot of people that would not admit to, you know, having a problem or wouldn't want to deal with it in that way."
Dietzel continues to get help today. He says it’s one of the ways he’s able to cope with the pandemic.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and considering suicide contact Your Life Iowa by calling (855) 581-8111, texting (855) 895-8398, or using the online chat function at https://yourlifeiowa.org/. Find resources to help get connected with counseling and care here.
You can also reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
This story is part of a collaboration of Institute for Nonprofit News members examining the effect of COVID-19 on rural health care. Partners are Carolina Public Press, Iowa Watch, Side Effects Media, Wisconsin Watch and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read the collaboration’s work here: Slammed: Rural health care and COVID-19.