School-Based Agricultural Educators’ Knowledge of Farm Stressors and Suicide Warning Signs

Behind the Research: Q & A with Chaney Mosley, lead author

SAgE: Tell us about your research question that you started with.

Author Chaney Mosley, PhD

Chaney Mosley, PhD

CM: We had many research questions, but this is the first part that we looked at and analyzed. Essentially, it was, what do ag teachers know about farm stress, and what do they know about suicide warning signs? If they know all the farm stressors, and they recognize all of the warning signs, then there would be no need for us to intervene. But they didn’t, and we didn’t expect that they would for either one, and so now we begin the efforts of providing QPR [Question, Persuade, Refer] training in a variety of places. When we do that, we also educate them about farm stressors and have discussions regarding how some things that are stressful to farmers are stressful to people in general. That’s why we started asking the question.

What if ag teachers are in these communities, they are serving the students of farmers, and a student comes in and says, “Man, it’s been rough at home lately. We had 50 pigs that died because they were given a vaccine that was contaminated. That’s a huge loss to us, and it’s really going to hurt my family.” The next week, the kid is confiding in the teacher, saying, “It’s really hard, my dad is struggling because he feels that it’s all on him.” Then the ag teacher is aware of farm stressors and suicide warning signs and can go, “Hey, let me reach out to your dad.” It’s another touch point. We’re not training them to be mental health counselors, but that’s why we started with the QPR, so that they can hear stories from their students and possibly intervene, but the long-term goal, and this will be in round two, is that we can partner with schools and begin providing youth QPR. But you can’t do that unless all staff in the school has been trained in QPR.

We know that there is a shortage of qualified mental health workers in rural areas. In the long-term, for a sustainable approach to suicide prevention in rural areas and farm communities, then we have to address the stigma. And you can’t address the stigma if you’re not talking about it, and you can’t talk about it if you don’t know about it.

The bottom line is we’re trying to put more informed people in the rural communities, and agriculture teachers are certainly one of those people, in addition to school counselors, who could have their ear to the ground.

SAgE: Is there an elevated incidence of suicide among children of farmers?

CM: No, actually we weren’t looking [at that]. Youth suicides and youth mental health issues are on the rise, especially since Covid. But I don’t think that connection has been made between [that and] children of farmers and farm workers. Our idea wasn’t to address the mental health needs of youth—it’s addressing the mental health needs of adults, but imagine if we were able to get into the agriculture classes that children of farm workers are most likely in, and we provide youth QPR. It’s not addressing their own mental health; it’s giving them the ability to recognize when a friend or family member might be in crisis and to intervene. So it’s actually creating a support for the parents by training their kids.

And then 20 years from now, when those kids who are 15 now are 35, and 30 years from now when they’re 45, and 40 years from now when they’re 55, the hope is that the older population doesn’t have such a stigma around mental health. We are addressing the stigma associated with mental health now at an early age.

SAgE: So once you’ve ascertained, which you did, that the awareness isn’t fully there and there does need to be some training, aside from the QPR, are there other interventions and trainings that you’re looking at doing?

CM: Yes, we’ve done a few things. QPR has been the one that we’ve focused on more than others because it gets at that intervention piece, which I think is the greatest need. But additionally, at the National Association of Agricultural Educators conference last year, we provided three professional development workshops focused on farm and ranch stress and suicide awareness. In those we talked about farm stressors and how you can recognize when someone is experiencing stress, and then we connected it to the data from the CDC pointing to the elevated levels of suicide in the farming community and had really open conversations. That’s how we’ve done it previously, but the goal over the next year is to take the actual farm stress brief that really digs deep into farm stress and different demographics that experience farm stress, and I’m taking that brief and turning it into a workshop that will be available, hopefully, on demand, so if people are curious, they can log on to the SAgE website, and they can click and play it.

And we also want to create a train the trainer module, because a lot of this is better in person: here’s the training, and now I’m going to train you to deliver this training so that you can go out in your state or in your school systems. So that one will be more strategically focused on farm stress and not the suicide piece. It’s more, here are the things that lead to stress, and FYI, increased levels of stress can cause people to feel isolated, it can cause people to feel like they are a burden to others, and those feelings of isolation or being a burden can lead to suicidal ideation, so this is why it’s important to be aware.

Our larger study, which I think we’re going to do a brief about later on, brings in the interaction of their awareness of farm stress and their awareness of suicide warning signs as it relates to professional development needs. This brief was the first part of the research question.

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