Ag News

Farm Stress Summit: Mental & physical health are connected

by Jay Stone

Posted on Apr 05, 2023 at 0:00 AM

By Jay Stone, Georgia Farm Bureau

Farmers know difficulty.

Hard work, facing challenges and solving problems are essential traits for the farm mindset.

“You be relentless, you outwork whatever the problem is,” said Sumter County farmer Matt Berry, “But, it’s OK to say this is more than I can handle. The bigger man will admit when he’s got something going on that he can’t handle.”

The 2023 Farm Stress Summit, held March 20 at Mercer University, shed light on what farm stress is, why it is so hard to overcome and what can be done about it.

Keynote speaker Marshal Sewell, a Florida agriculturalist and founder of Mind Your Melon, defined stress this way: “Our body’s reaction to adverse circumstances.”

Put another way, just because it’s perceived to be between your ears doesn’t mean it’s not a physical ailment.

“Understand that there’s no division between your physical health and your mental health,” said Erin Lepp, an associate professor at Mercer’s College of Health Professions. “Having depression is an independent risk factor for developing heart disease.”

Berry and Lepp were part of a panel discussion on farm stress, along with AgrAbility South Georgia Service Coordinator Mason Dean and April Bassett of the Community Service Board of Middle Georgia. The event also featured remarks from Georgia Department of Agriculture Operations Director Dominic Lariccia and Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) Commissioner Kevin Tanner.

Sewell set up Mind Your Melon to be a “hub for thoughts, concepts and resources that contribute to and encourage proactive choices and lifestyles.” The organization’s website,, provides resources for nutrition, exercise & fitness and seeking help, as well as Sewell’s podcast. He has intertwined the mental with the physical in part because of stigma that accompanies mental health.

“Asking a farmer to jump over to talking to someone about mental health is like getting someone to get off a couch and go straight to running a marathon,” Sewell said.

Smaller steps are necessary. Sewell said he talks to farmers about common-ground topics like farm labor, input costs and other challenges to facilitate farmers opening up about their struggles.

“If this is a catalyst where I can get them to open up and be vulnerable, that’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Tanner said getting help is easier now than it ever has been, noting the rollout last year of the nationwide 988 crisis hotline. Tanner said suicides in rural Georgia increased by 12% from 2019 to 2020, but pointed out an increase in people reaching out for help on the 988 line. In the first 45 days the 988 line was active (July 16-Aug 29, 2022), Georgia contacts increased from 32,843 to 38,561 over the same period in 2021, according to numbers provided by DBHDD.

Tanner also emphasized the importance of talking about mental health to chip away at the stigma, and he said he’s working to address what he called a shortage of mental healthcare workers.

“There is no wait list for people in crisis,” Tanner said. “We have to be there when people need us.”

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