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A survey of farm households finds that the stress of farm life is felt by teens as well as adults.

Sun setting over a sunflower field at Clearview Farm in Champaign County.

(Web version still in progress – JM)

When farm life causes stress, young people feel it along with the adults.

That correlation was noted in a survey of farm families, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin.

The ongoing five-year survey collects data through online surveys of members of U.S. farm households. Findings from the survey’s first year were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.

In its first year, the survey found that about 60% of adults in 122 farm households met the criteria for at least mild depression, and 55% met criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. In comparison, the percentage of the general population reporting symptoms of depression is around 17 to 18%, according to University of Illinois Agriculture and Biological Engineering Professor Josie Rudolphi. 

But the survey is also interviewing teenagers aged 13 to 17 in those same farm households. And it found that households where adults reported symptoms of depression or anxiety, also had teens who reported those symptoms (although teens’ reporting of symptoms of anxiety were lower, at around 45%).

That strong correlation between adults and teens in the same households is one of the survey’s most important findings, according to Rudolphi. She is conducting the survey along with computer research scientist Richard Berg of the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

“We observed a very strong correlation between parent depressed mood and adolescent depressed mood,” said Rudolphi. “It really speaks to the need for us to consider resources and services that meet the needs of the family, and not only the owner-operator, when we talk about farm stress and mental health.”

Rudolphi says she grew up in a farm family in Iowa,  and saw firsthand in her own household and those of others, how teens pick up on the strains their parents are feeling, even if they don’t fully understand them.

“But you could feel it,” said Rudolphi. “You know that your family was under stress. You know the angst and the anxiety that was there.”

Rudolphi notes a high correlation between farm debt and depression in adults, which in turn correlates with depression and anxiety among teens in farming households.

“This is a group of people who have very little control over the price of their product,” she said. “They have very little control over interest rates. They also have very little control over inputs. And so they’re really at the mercy of geopolitical and environmental factors that contribute to their finances. They also aren’t paid on a regular basis. You and I appreciate maybe a check every two weeks or every month for the work we do. But farmers don’t have that sort of regularity in their income, which creates a lot of stress.”

Rudolphi is also a specialist with the Illinois Extension, where she co-directs a collaborative that provides mental health assistance and interventions for farm households. The North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center (online at farmstress.org) covers 12 Midwestern States, including Illinois, and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (similar operations cover the rest of the country). The center offers ag-specific services such as a hotline and an Illinois voucher program for mental health services.

The research is funded by the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety (NCCRAHS) based at the Marshfield Institute. It’s part of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH)

Rudolphi says participation in the survey of farm households is growing, as it enters its third year this fall. Meanwhile, the questions it asks are being adjusted from year to year.

The first two years of the survey included questions about COVID-19. Rudolphi says she would like to see new questions in future years, asking farm households what services and resources they could use to treat depression and anxiety.

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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