Penn State University: Avian flu outbreak exacerbates concerns for farmers’ mental health

The devastating outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, that has slammed Pennsylvania’s $7.1 billion poultry industry in recent weeks has caused the loss of nearly 4 million birds in nine commercial flocks in the state as of May 10. But besides its impact on producers’ bottom lines, avian flu also could affect their mental health and well-being, according to a Penn State Extension educator.

Although the risk to people is low, HPAI is extremely infectious, often deadly to poultry and can spread rapidly from flock to flock. Upon detection of the virus in domestic poultry, the entire flock must be eradicated to prevent the spread of disease.

This potentially massive economic toll threatens the livelihoods of poultry farmers and, in turn, compounds a mental health crisis that has been brewing for years among agricultural producers, noted Cynthia Pollich, a food, families and health extension educator based in Lancaster County, the epicenter of this year’s avian flu detections in the state. Pollich said it is important to distinguish everyday stress from the unique stressors of farming.

“We all have stress,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just, ‘Oh, I ran out of milk, and I can’t get to the store.’ That kind of stressor is easily handled the next day when you get to the store and get your milk. But when you pile on things that are out of your control, such as commodity prices, payment for crops, the pandemic, unpredictable weather, inaccessible pesticides, and the astronomical cost of gas and fertilizer, that adds to long-term stress.”

Persistent stress can create mental health issues among farmers. Due to stigma surrounding this topic in the farming community, mental health concerns often are untreated, unrecognized or ignored, Pollich noted. Sometimes negative feelings fester until they result in death by suicide. She pointed out that suicide among Pennsylvania farmers is on the rise.

Pollich and other extension educators work to support the mental health of agricultural producers through education on mental health awareness and mental health first aid.

Available on request, a workshop called “Weathering the Storm” is aimed at helping producers understand the signs and impact of stress on the body, the root causes of stress, and practical coping skills. People interested in the course, which also includes information on helpful local and state resources, can contact a member of Extension’s farm stress team — listed on the workshop webpage — to schedule a webinar or in-person workshop in their community.

Another workshop, “Communicating with Farmers Under Stress,” is designed for anyone who interacts with producers, such as family members, agriculture industry professionals, veterinarians, loan officers and others. Developed by Michigan State University Extension, the course is intended to help participants build awareness of the stressors affecting farmers and their families; recognize signs and symptoms of anxiety and warning signs of suicide; approach and assist farmers who show changes in their mental health; and access local, state and national resources. Training is available on request by contacting a member of the farm stress team.

In addition to offering classes, presentations and handouts on mental health, Penn State Extension works closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to highlight the new AgriStress HelpLine for Pennsylvania. Available 24/7, the hotline was designed specifically to help farmers in crisis.

“It’s like the national suicide hotline, except all the folks who answer the phone know the stressors of farming,” Pollich said. “Being a farmer is your job, but it’s also your identity. It might be where your family has lived for 100 years. When farmers lose their businesses, they often lose their homes, land and connections to community.”

Because farming is such a close-knit community, Pollich encouraged the idea of “neighbors helping neighbors” to address mental health concerns.

“Outsiders can’t always do that,” she said. “When a neighbor notices that a friend missed a few social gatherings, they might decide to stop by and knock on the farmer’s door to make sure they’re okay.”

Pollich explained that neighbors can support each other by “making them understand that you miss them, you’re concerned about them, you’re aware that something’s going on and you’re here to listen.”

To build a support system, seasoned farmers could mentor younger farmers, Pollich suggested. Young farmers may know how to milk cows, but they might not understand how to balance a budget, order supplies or handle other tasks involved in running a farm.

The stigma of seeking help stems partly from a sense of pride among farmers, Pollich said. “It’s important to hold in one hand what the person is saying about how strong they are and how they’ve been doing this for generations — because they are strong, and they have been doing it for generations — but also help them understand that they might need a little help. They might need someone to come talk about diversification, so they can add an income stream when the milk market is struggling, for example.”

Pollich offered a few ideas on helpful and unhelpful phrases for talking to someone under stress. An unhelpful phrase? “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Instead, she suggested saying “I’m here for you,” or “I’m ready to listen whenever you’re ready to talk.”

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