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Bulletin #4805, Recognizing the Signs of Farm Family Stress

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Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance

Recognizing the Signs of Farm Family Stress

Adapted by Associate Extension Professor Leslie Forstadt and Associate Extension Professor Tori Jackson, University of Maine

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This series, Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance, provides a starting point for farm families to think about issues that range from family conversations to managing stress and sharing ideas about life and business balance. Titles include:

family members standing in a fieldFarm families can experience financial and emotional stress for many reasons. It can happen as the result of a sudden event—like crop loss, an accident, a personnel change, or a family death. Or it may be the result of several consecutive years of difficult farming conditions, low income generation, prolonged physical illness, excessive working hours, or relationship difficulties.

There are several signs that a farm family may be in need of help. Such signs can be observed by partners, friends, extended family members, neighbors, milk haulers, veterinarians, feed/seed dealers, clergy persons, school personnel, or health and human service workers. These signs include the following:

  • Change in routines: Farmers or members of the farm family may change who attends a market, stop attending regular meetings or religious activities, drop out of 4-H or other groups, or fail to stop in at the local coffee shop or feed mill.
  • Decline in the care of farm or domestic animals: Livestock may not be cared for in the usual way; they may lose condition, appear gaunt, or show signs of neglect or physical abuse. The farmer’s relationship with domestic pets may change: the animals may be less cared for, or the farmer may become more attached.
  • Increase in illness: Farmers or farm family members may experience more upper respiratory illnesses (cold, flu) or other chronic conditions (aches, pains, persistent cough, migraines).
  • Increase in farm accidents: The risk of farm accidents increases with fatigue or loss of ability to concentrate. Children may be at risk if there isn’t alternative child care.
  • Decline in appearance of farmstead: The farm family no longer takes pride in the way farm buildings and grounds appear, or no longer takes the time to do maintenance work.
  • Signs of stress in children: Farm children may act out, decline in academic performance, or be increasingly absent from school. They may also show signs of physical abuse or neglect, or become depressed. Adolescents may stay away from home, show signs of substance use/abuse, or become involved with the law.
  • Decreased interest in activities: Farmers or farm families may be less willing to commit to future activities, sign up for gatherings, or show interest in community events.

Signs of Chronic, Prolonged Stress

When farm families are under stress for long periods of time, members of the family may exhibit any number of these signs:

  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Ulcers
  • Anger
  • Passive-aggressiveness
  • Frequent sickness
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of humor
  • Memory loss
  • Self-judgment (e.g., “I blew it.”)
  • Lack of confidence (e.g., “Why can’t I …?”)
  • Sadness
  • Backaches
  • Bitterness
  • Withdrawal
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of spirit
  • Alcoholism
  • Violence
  • Lack of self-confidence (e.g., “I’m a failure.”)
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of concentration

Signs of Depression or Suicidal Intent

The greater the number of signs of stress a farm family member is exhibiting, the greater the concern should be. In addition, if farm family members are exhibiting the following signs of depression or suicidal intent, it is important that they get help as soon as possible. Many of these are signs and symptoms of fatigue and stress. But when there are multiple signs—particularly cries for help—they should be taken seriously. Also, if there are significant changes in the way someone typically functions, they may need immediate help or intervention, such as a medical evaluation.

  • Appearance: Sad face, slow movements, unkempt appearance, lack of facial expression
  • Anxiety and/or depression: Severe/intense feelings, appearance of anxiety or depression (both may be present)
  • Unhappy feelings: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness
  • Withdrawal or isolation: Reclusiveness, discouragement, listlessness, rejection of friends and support
  • Negative thoughts: “I’m a failure,” or “I’m no good”
  • Helpless and hopeless: Sense of complete powerlessness, sense that no one cares.
  • Reduced activity: Absence of planning, increased sleeping, feeling that “doing anything is just too much.”
  • Alcohol abuse: (Note that there is a link between alcoholism and suicide.)
  • People problems: Lack of interest in being social (“I don’t want anyone to see me.”)
  • Previous suicidal attempts: Previous attempts are important signs, whether they are of low or high severity.
  • Physical problems: Sleeping problems, decreased appetite, various physical ailments from aches and pains to severe muscle tension
  • Suicidal plan: Frequent or constant thoughts of a specific suicide plan
  • Guilt and low self-esteem: “It’s all my fault,” or “I should be punished.”
  • Cries for help: Making a will, giving away possessions, making statements such as “I’m calling it quits” or “Maybe my family would be better off without me.”

How to Help

  • Listen. Provide opportunities for the farmer or family member to talk about what they are going through. You don’t need to have answers, but be aware of local resources so that you can refer them.
  • Listen for signs that the individual needs more than a sympathetic ear—signs that the person might need professional help that you can’t provide, such as financial, legal, or personal counseling.
  • Access the agency or community resource most appropriate to address the person’s (or family’s) problem.
  • Discuss the referral with the person or family (“It sounds/looks like you are feeling_______. I think ____ could help you deal with your situation.”)
  • Explore the individual’s or family’s willingness to initiate contact with the community resource (“How do you feel about seeking help from this person/agency?”)
  • If the person or family is unwilling to take the initiative, or if there is some danger if action is not taken, it is up to you to take the initiative:
    • Call “211” (in Maine) or a crisis line and ask for an agency or hospital in your area.
    • Call the agency and ask to speak to an intake worker.
    • Identify yourself and your relationship with the person or family.
    • State what you think the person’s or family’s needs are (immediate protection from suicidal acts; or an appointment for counseling, financial advice, or legal advice.)
    • Provide the agency with background information (the person’s name, address, phone, age, and gender, as well as the nature of the current problem or crisis.)
    • Ask the agency what follow-up action they will take:
      • When will they act on the referral?
      • Who will be the person for you to contact later if necessary?
      • What will be the cost of the service? Is there a flat fee or a sliding scale?
      • Do you need to do anything else to complete the referral?
  • Make one or more follow-up contacts with the agency and/or the individual to make sure that the farmer has found the needed support.

Selected Maine Resources to Support Stressed Farm Families

2-1-1 Maine
2-1-1 Maine is a comprehensive statewide directory of over 8,000 health and human services available in Maine. The toll free 2-1-1 hotline connects callers to trained call specialists who can help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Finding the answers to health and human services questions and locating resources is as quick and easy as dialing 2-1-1 or visiting

Maine Statewide Crisis & Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-888-568-1112 (Voice) 711 (Maine Relay)
If you are concerned about yourself or somebody else, call the crisis hotline. This will connect you to your closest crisis center.

Statewide Domestic Violence Helpline
Information, crisis counseling, emotional support, and advocacy; visit

Other Maine Hotlines

Farm Aid Farmer Resource Network
Works with organizations around the country staffed with farm advocates, counselors, and hotline operators who can help you in your time of greatest need. Visit

Adapted with permission from Roger T. Williams, “Farm Family Stress: A Checklist and Guide for Making Referrals,” Farm and Ranch Survival Kit 3 (Washington State University and Oregon State University): 5–6.

Special thanks to the following reviewers:

  • Extension Professor Rick Kersbergen
  • Extension Professor Gary Anderson
  • Erica Buswell (Maine Farmland Trust)

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2014

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