Impact of chronic stress such as drought on farmers

Chronic stress among farming communities might lead to physical problems (e.g., headaches, sleep problems), mental problems (e.g., anxiety, anger, depression), and cognitive issues (e.g., memory loss, inability to make decisions).

It has been shown that chronic stressors have a major influence on well-being and health. Particularly, stress is associated with an increased prevalence of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety¹.

For farmers in particular, the advent of future climate change means that their job will become even more stressful².

Chronic stress among farming communities might lead to physical problems (e.g., headaches, sleep problems), mental problems (e.g., anxiety, anger, depression), and cognitive issues (e.g., memory loss, inability to make decisions).³

Farmers have also been more likely to report that life was not worth living than non-farmers⁴. Mental problems among farmers can affect their lives in different ways, and the impact of stress factors are varied among them. These include:

  • Less interest in pleasure, less concentration, loss of appetite, weight change, tiredness, irritability, problems sleeping, fatigue, loss of control, and anxiety.⁵
  • Loss of self-esteem, withdrawal from social activity, relationship breakdown, forgetfulness, loss of temper, relaxation problems, feeling blue, and substance abuse have been reported.⁶
  • A danger of burnout and exhaustion is possible with all these symptoms. Burnout is a gradually developing disorder that may consist of physical and mental exhaustion, a cynical attitude towards work, and a reduction in self-esteem.⁷
  • Most importantly, mental disorders have been identified as one of the key risk factors for suicide attempts among farmers. High suicide rates among farmers, farm manager and agricultural labourer have been reported in several studies, which is considered one of the most serious concerns affecting some farming communities.⁸

Female Farmers

Research has mainly focussed on male farmers’ mental health, even though farm women usually engage in several farm roles, which include farm labour/management, household duties and childcare.

Overall, research suggested that female farmers experience more psychological distress than male farmers.⁹

Role conflict between farm and home roles, and the absence of husband support are all potential risk factors.¹⁰

Another study found that farm women who are in conflict with their husbands about farm roles, or are unhappy with their marriages, are more likely to report stress related health symptoms.¹¹

Female farmers whose husbands worked more hours on the farm reported higher depressive symptoms.

Another study found a significant increase in women’s work hours reflected their emotional distress; also, that farm women are more likely to talk about their partner’s health and ignore their own.¹²

Age of Farmers

Age of farmers and the association with mental health issues has been discussed in-depth in the research.

Overall, younger farmers experienced higher levels of stress-related symptoms.¹³

This was most likely associated with higher debt levels.

However, another study¹⁴

found that the frequency of depressive symptoms was higher among farmers who were 35 years or older. It has also been found that there are more mental impairments observed with aging farmers.

Research¹⁵

has found that older farmers felt an irresistible sense of loss during prolonged drought compared with younger farmers.

Barriers to Farmers Seeking Help

Farmer stress and exhaustion of an individual farmer is often hidden, which may delay help-seeking behaviour.

Help-seeking is an active search for a relief to fulfil a need and is a complex decision-making process especially for persons suffering from mental disorders.

Usually lack of knowledge or the belief that a person should deal with his or her mental problems alone were common reasons that decrease the possibility of individuals’ help-seeking.

Lack of access to mental health services in rural areas was another major burden to the delivery of appropriate mental health services.

One study found that usually, older farmers try to access mental health support; however, practical and cultural barriers often prevented them from succeeding.

Other barriers included farmer self-reliance, social image/stigma, negative perceptions of health professionals’ efficacy and high treatment fees.

Other research found that farmers were half as likely to visit general practitioners or mental health professionals in the last 12 months as compared to non-farmers.

Farmers often stated that it was better to manage themselves rather than access help for physical or mental health needs.

Also, it has been argued that while the traditional masculine model of male farmers can be a benefit to them during good times, in times of heightened stress (like drought), it can lead them to fail to address their mental health needs.

Find out more 

To find out more about the Recharge program, please contact The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria communications@rasv.com.au.

I will be regularly posting articles on farmer mental health and wellbeing and looking forward to hearing about your views and any topics you would like me to cover.

Mental Health Support


Franco Greco - Consulting Psychologist - Recharge Program and Delivered Live

Franco provides expert mental health advice and services to assist and support fire and drought impacted farmers and their communities in Victoria. He is also Delivered Live’s consulting psychologist on mental health and wellbeing regarding COVID-19.
Franco is also the Principal Psychologist at Your Psychologist (www.yourpsychologist.net.au) - a unique private practice dedicated to helping professional people improve their life, career and relationships.