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Study: Link Between Ag Stress, Alcohol
By Todd Neeley
Tuesday, July 16, 2024 4:24PM CDT

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- About one in four farmers in the United States turn to binge drinking in response to high stress levels, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia.

What's more, the study that included a survey of 1,045 farmers found them turning to alcohol because of stigma among the farming community and actual barriers to accessing mental health care in rural areas.

"Beyond cultural factors that act as a barrier to help-seeking, like resilience and the stigmatization of mental health in the farming community, farmers are also isolated from both social support and healthcare resources," the study published in the Journal of Agromedicine said.

"These factors may reinforce the use of alcohol to manage the high levels of stress associated with farming. The risk associated with farming, lack of access to healthcare resources, and a scarcity of healthcare providers who understand the farming population, are compounded by stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health and substance use disorders creating a vicious cycle that promotes unhealthy coping strategies in farming populations."

The survey was distributed to the ag community in a number of ways including at the 2023 Georgia and American Farm Bureau Federation conferences between Nov. 1, 2022, and Feb. 1, 2023.

A whopping 96% of survey respondents reported consuming alcohol. That includes about 27% of farmers reporting drinking alcohol two to three times or four or more times a week. About 35% of farmers surveyed reported consuming alcohol roughly two to four times per month. About 70% of respondents were male while 28% of respondents were female, with an average age of about 33.

"When participants consumed alcohol, 34% indicated that they consumed three or four drinks in one sitting, 22.5% reported drinking five or six drinks in one sitting, with 18.2% reported having seven or more drinks in one sitting over the last three months," the paper said.

"Binge drinking behavior was reported on a weekly or daily basis by 23.4% of respondents, with 19.6% reporting binge drinking on a weekly basis and 3.8% reporting binge drinking on a daily basis."


The study authors also surveyed producers about their perceived stress and mental health stigma. The farmers surveyed reported overall high stress levels, as well as concerns about social stigma and financial costs connected with seeking mental health services.

"Participants most strongly endorsed concerns about others taking them less seriously, treating them differently and talking about them behind their back, as well as personal feelings of shame as markers of stigma associated with help-seeking for mental health support," the study authors said in the published paper.

"Participants endorsed a fair amount of formal healthcare challenges. Participants most strongly endorsed concerns about paying out of pocket for specialty care, lack of insurance, and lack of awareness of available resources for substance use disorders as primary challenges associated with accessing healthcare."

The farmers surveyed reported being either second- or third-generation producers and 80% of them are married. Most of them, about 48%, reported being farm owners or managers. About 78% of the farmers surveyed produce beef cattle, wheat and corn.


The study authors outline a number of limitations with their work including that survey respondents were much younger than the average age of farmers across the industry.

For instance, the younger demographic surveyed could be attributed to the use of digital recruitment strategies as well as the content of the survey itself, the authors said.

"Participants in prior research conducted in the farming community indicated that older farmers would be unlikely to engage in discussions of stressors and mental health, and this generational distinction may have contributed to a younger respondent pool," according to the paper.

"Within the farming population, it has been observed that younger farmers are more likely to report not only higher stress but higher rates of alcohol consumption as well which might have skewed the results of this study. In addition, a majority of responses were from farm owners and managers with limited responses from farm workers and spouses.

The study authors said farm workers are more likely to be foreign-born, "experience poverty," lack access to health insurance and have lower education levels which could influence behavior and health outcomes.

Christina Proctor, lead author of the study and a clinical associate professor at UGA's College of Public Health, said in a news release that alcohol is the "most acceptable way" for farmers to deal with stress rather than seeking out help.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show suicide rates in rural areas are higher than anywhere else in the country.

"Knowing the stigma that exists within rural farming populations about seeking care and then looking at death by suicide numbers, it really is a public health issue because there are drastic, traumatic outcomes associated with not being able to ask for that care, using alcohol to cope and then feeling hopeless," she said.

Read DTN's special issue about mental health, "Rays of Hope Shedding Light on Rural Mental Health Challenges," at https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @DTNeeley

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