Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Do Farmers Avoid Counseling?

June 1, 2009

Many farmers become immobilized when confronted with anxiety and depression. Yet they don’t seek physicians, mental health professionals or even clergy for assistance. Why? What barriers keep farmers from being responsible for their own well being when they can be responsible about almost everything else?

1. The rural ethic is to be responsible for oneself. "You made your own bed, now lie in it." Their logic goes like this - if a person is responsible for creating the problem, he or she is responsible for the solution. However, if it was unavoidable - an accident or a problem caused by an external force - then rural people are quick to rally around their friends and neighbors.

When it comes to financial and farm management matters, cause and effect are attributed to the individual operator. External causes of financial problems like trade policies, consolidation in the food processing industry, and government policies unfavorable to small and mid-size farmers are largely ignored or discounted.

Even after witnessing the steady attrition of farmers from the countryside, local judgments of one’s peers often centers around mistakes in management by the individual farmer.

It is a big step to admit a problem, first to oneself and then to someone else. In the rural and typically masculine view, not to be able to solve problems by oneself is an indication of weakness. They associate mental health professionals with the stigma of "going crazy" or of "not being in control."

The idea of giving up control by going to a counselor is threatening. The prospect of having one’s thoughts and feelings examined is new and unpleasant. Unfortunately, many farmers dig themselves a deep hole before taking that step.

2. Farmers are stoical in the face of disaster. Natural disasters are accepted and lived with. Bad weather is a part of life. Part of the toughness farmers show is dealing with these hardships when they occur. When a financial crisis hits, the same rationale applies. "I can live with this too."

As a matter of masculine pride, men in particular may be trying to go through life without needing to turn to a confidant when they have fear or confusion in their lives.

3. Emotions can be overwhelming. A crisis floods farmers with feelings of fear, guilt, shame, abandonment, confusion, depression, anger, grief, and even irrational thoughts and worries. Physical symptoms and health problems are also common during times of distress. The lack of emotional control is itself frightening.

The focus shifts from logical consideration of the financial facts and options about the operation to a preoccupation with one's reactions. A farmer asks him or herself the question, "What is wrong with me?" instead of, "What can I do about this?" Worse yet, he or she keeps this fear and confusion to oneself. He or she is not used to solving problems through reflective listening and emotional interchange.

4. Not being able to pay one's debts hurts others in the community. Farmers understand how delicate

the fabric of rural community life is. The harm caused by unpaid financial obligations to local suppliers and creditors is real and visible.

To not pay one's debts is degrading and humiliating. It violates personal and community norms of moral behavior. Farmers in this position often try to protect themselves from feelings of shame by avoiding others. They stop coming to church, school activities and community events.

5. Playing the blame game. Some farmers place the fault squarely on themselves. Personal guilt can be paralyzing. Mistakes need to be put into context. For many farmers, the ability to regroup comes with the recognition that their mistakes are not just personal failures.

This recognition comes easier when factors outside of their control are given proper weight. "Instead of feeling like I was cut out of the herd, I learned that the whole herd is in trouble."

Perceived violations of trust, negligence and manipulation by family members, neighbors, loan officers and others leave farmers stuck with blame and anger. They focus on a personal struggle of vindication and justice while ignoring some of the larger issues of survivability and effective coping for themselves and their family members. It is hard to let go when a preventable problem is perceived to have been caused by someone else.

6. Pride keeps farmers from seeking help. Pride is the feeling of worth gained by comparing oneself with others. Pride is a factor in rural communities because of the prevalence of so many independent competitors in the same occupation. They are often from the same ethnic group and church affiliation. They face the same weather and economic conditions and compete for the same land when it becomes available.

How others see them is a key part of how farmers judge their own worth. Farmers protect their self-image by keeping business problems private. To seek help openly would subject the troubled farmer to perceived scrutiny and censure.

7. Farmers encounter problems in seeking help. Even when the desire to get help is strong, farmers have to deal with finding a counselor that understands the complex interactions between farming, debt, work responsibility, marital and family interactions and community obligations. Accessing those services in a way that isn’t cost prohibitive, within a reasonable distance and preserves anonymity is a daunting challenge.