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Families learning to deal with down sides of farming

by | Feb 7, 2020

The University of Maryland’s Dr. Norman Epstein specializes in helping families, including farming families, cope with the effects of stress. (Photo courtesy Lena McBean, Remsberg Inc.)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — While weather woes are common for farmers in any growing season, mental health experts say a particularly tumultuous year can cause high levels of stress for many farm families that could lead to serious complications if left unchecked.
Dr. Norman Epstein is a clinical psychologist, couple and family therapist, and professor in the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland who trains family therapists in the department’s Couple and Family Therapy Program.
Epstein specializes in helping families cope with challenging life situations and has worked with many stressed families during his four decades of experience, including farm families. He says people tend to focus on the positive, romanticized aspects of farming — communing with nature, a sense of freedom and a short commute — and often overlook the down sides.
“Some of the same things that are sources of pleasure can be very stressful,” Epstein said. “For example, farming is a family business generally, and one of the things that comes up often is where do you draw the line between work and family life? You can’t really leave and go home. Your work is at home.”
One of the attractive aspects of farming is that it allows considerable independence, but it can be an isolating line of work, Epstein continued, and it comes with one of the highest risks of injury compared to other professions.
Meanwhile, time off is virtually non-existent during the growing season and, as a business, farming has become increasingly complex over the years, requiring farmers to keep detailed financial records and comply with complicated, ever-changing environmental regulations.
“There’s often what’s called a pile-up of stress,” Epstein said. “Any one thing is sort of stressful but you take it in stride and then another thing happens and another thing happens and finally there’s a last straw and the person has a blow-up and suddenly becomes overwhelmed by too many things at once.”
Asking the Tough Questions
At the individual level, symptoms of stress can include depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, substance abuse, anger and irritability.
Within the family dynamic, arguments happen with more frequency and members may distance themselves from one another.
Therapists like Epstein can help farmers and their families take a step back to understand where the stress is coming from, how it became problematic and what steps to take to alleviate it. Assistance is available for stressed individuals as well as whole families. However, convincing farmers to reach out to a professional is often the hardest part.
“Most farmers are independent people and they take pride in that. Asking for help and accepting help can be a real challenge,” Epstein said.
That’s why it’s vital that family members and friends keep their eyes open and speak up if they notice any unusual behavior or personality changes. When anxiety and depression fester, they can develop into feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.
It’s not unusual for suicidal thoughts to follow, Epstein cautioned, as the individual may begin to perceive that conditions are out of control and a solution is unattainable.
“A lot of people are a little uneasy about asking somebody if they’ve had thoughts of harming themselves because it’s a very touchy subject; it’s very taboo,” Epstein said. “However, if you break through the taboo and you ask the person, they’re usually not offended and they usually are relieved that somebody noticed and somebody cares. Don’t be afraid to ask those kinds of tough questions if you have concerns.”
(Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Crop Insurance In Maryland Winter 2019 newsletter.)

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