Mental health is a tough subject for individuals as proud, competent and self-reliant as agricultural producers tend to be. But, conversations surrounding mental health go down a little easier when presented by cattlemen to cattlemen. At least that’s what native Missouri cattle producer and pharmacist Jason Medows had in mind when creating his Ag State of Mind podcast — a place where he could share his own mental health journey and interview like-minded producers in order to alleviate some of the stigma around seeking help for mental health.

During the 2021 Missouri Forage and Grassland Council conference in Springfield, Medows talked about some of the basic complications with mental health in agriculture and solutions to solve them.

“I would never introduce myself as a first generation pharmacist, but in agriculture our farms or ranches always lead with that generational tie. The more generations, the better,” Medows said. “And, no one wants to be the last generation — the reason that family legacy didn’t continue on. That pressure is a very real thing, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Why Mental Health Matters

Mental health is an increasingly covered topic in all areas of agriculture. It’s not difficult to admit that the work farmers and ranchers do is extremely taxing on both the mind and body. What is difficult, is admitting that strategies need to be put in place to help manage those day-to-day stresses — for the good of the individual as well as the industry as a whole.

“We should be performing maintenance on ourselves just in the same way as we would for our cardiac health, or for respiratory,” Medows said. “With the stigma that exists around mental health, that’s something that’s hard for people to wrap their brains around.”

While mental health can surely have an impact on decision-making and family life, Medows said, it can also have a profound impact on physical health as well, especially in a work and lifestyle environment that lends itself to isolation the way farming and ranching is prone to do.

“Analysis shows that lack of social connections — which I'm sure we can all attest to can be a real part of what we do —can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder,” Medows said. “I would say that’s pretty significant.”

Factors Impacting Mental Health in Ag

Isolation can be the physical distance from a town or close neighbors, or emotional and social isolation — a factor that’s becoming more and more prominent as the general population’s familiarity with an agricultural lifestyle rapidly declines.

“In the early 1900s, I think it was somewhere around over half of the population lived in an agrarian lifestyle,” Medows said. “Now, as many of you I'm sure know, it is less than 10%. So the growing disconnect is really detrimental.”

As someone who shares his lifestyle online with an intent to help educate the general public on both mental health and agriculture, Medows said he’s used to receiving upsetting comments. One example was a recent comment labeling him as an animal and child abuser for allowing his children to show livestock in 4-H.

While comments like those are certainly becoming more common and more anticipated from radical individuals, Medows said when local outlets share anti-beef news or promote anti-agriculture practices, the effects can be even more damaging. Coming from friends and neighbors who have had more exposure to agricultural lifestyles and struggles, those seemingly small things can feel very targeted and personal.

In addition to a growing disconnect with the general population, Medows said comparison syndrome is a big culprit for declining mental health in agriculture.

“When we go into talking about comparison syndrome, what we're looking at is ourselves versus other people,” Medows said. “We need to take a few other things into account there, and one of them is that you never really what other people's struggles are.”

Comparison syndrome is more than just jealousy over a neighbor’s top-of-the-line cattle chute or their prize-winning bull. It’s also comparing overall financial situations — something that causes higher instances of mental health struggles for producers in good times than bad.

“When we're struggling and everybody's having a hard time, it might be easier to know that you're not alone,” Medows said. “Whenever things are really high and steers are bringing $1,500 at market and you're still having a hard time financially, it's hard to really find some solidarity because you feel like you shouldn't be stuck.”

While many sources of mental health struggles originate from outside of the agricultural community, one of the biggest influencers is closer to home.

“Stigma is the pivotal and ultimate factor,” Medows said. “Stigma is the Rubicon of mental health in agriculture. We have to have people willing to go out ahead, face the hard things and pave the way.”

Medows said it’s hard to start tough conversations about mental struggles but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth having. His mindset approaching those obstacles is grim but true — he would rather have an awkward talk than attend a friend’s funeral.

“We have a community in agriculture that’s very helpful,” Medows said. “But among farmers and ranchers there is also a lot of independence and that can be a double-edged sword.”

Solutions for Stress

If one thing is true of the indominable spirit of agriculturists, it’s that they don’t face problems without finding solutions. And, mental health is another obstacle the agriculture industry will overcome.

Medows presented several solutions that helped in managing his own mental health struggles, starting with exercise.

“The most impactful thing to managing my mental health has been exercise,” Medows said. “I know the argument is that we don’t have time for exercise and we have enough of it moving polywire for grazing or jumping out to get gates or just working.”

The biggest challenge for incorporating exercise in a farm routine, especially since agricultural producers rarely ever physically leave the site of their “job” is finding a way to prioritize time to exercise.

“It’s hard to fit it in,” Medows said. “For me now, I don’t want to live a life where I don’t make time for exercise. It’s worth that much to me.”

However, being flexible with expectations on incorporating exercise into a routine is also important.

“As you all know, when you have cattle, when you live this lifestyle, plans rarely if ever work out,” Medows said.

Medow’s next two solutions for stress are less physical and more mental, as well as having a bigger impact on overall family life.

“Reading and journaling are two things thathave become important to my mental health journey,” Medows said. “It's a part where I made so much growth, and saw so much impact in my own life, in my marriage life, and with my family.”

Reading was something to fill evenings in the winter with physical books or using audiobooks to keep his mind from wandering to stressors while riding in the tractor. While, journaling, especially, was a hard habit to start and continue, he said.

“I found out really quick that not just writing down thoughts, but also also planning my days and sorting out problems on paper made a difference,” Medows said. “There's so many things that I do and it's really busy. Writing them down on paper really makes my life a lot easier.”

The last solution Medows offered was perhaps the most difficult to execute and the most effective —taking time away.”

“When you're having a hard time. You can't figure it out. You don't know if they're saying solution's never, ever going to come. If you just stop and you just step away from it, it will come easier,” Medows said. “And I always say a break can last anywhere from five minutes to five hours to five days. But if you'll notice that when you come back to that, whatever was causing the issue, that solutions will come much, much easier once you take that time.”

Medows encouraged farmers and ranchers to continue to be more in tune with not only their own mental health, but with signs that their neighbors may be struggling as well. Having difficult conversations and demonstrating a willingness to help without judgement can go a long way to easing a friend, neighbor or relative’s burden.

“Whenever somebody, especially a guy like thata 37 year-old man, reaches out and asks for help —that's something that may not seem like it's a big deal but could be a sign,” Medows said. “You never know what really they are really asking for. It could be they just need to talk or need help around the farm, but it’s important to answer those requests for help, even if they seem small.”

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