the farmer's wife

The Farmer's Wife: A Rural Mental Health Perspective


by Peter G. Beeson, Ph.D. , President-Elect, National Association for Rural Mental Health


The strength, self-reliance, hardiness, and resilience we see in Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter and their children are characteristics that have traditionally been attributed to rural people. What's happening to them needs to be understood in the broader context of the vast social and economic changes taking place in rural America and within farming. The challenges the Buschkoetters face, the hardships they endure, the stresses and strains on their marriage and each other, and their prospects for the future are all, to one degree or another, the result of the social and economic circumstances that are affecting rural Americans today.

Darrel and Juanita were married and entered farming together in 1985, the height of the farm crisis. In Nebraska, from 1981 to 1986, farmers and rural residents went from having the best "mental health" in the state to the worst; rates of depression for farmers and rural residents more than doubled and far outstripped their urban counterparts. Nebraska and Iowa studies during the 1980s found over 20 percent of farmers and rural residents had evidence of depression. Alcohol abuse, child abuse, spouse abuse, divorce, suicide and farm accidents climbed along with the stress. Children became troubled and acted out in various ways. Study after study documented the effects of the farm crisis on individuals, families, and communities; there was strong evidence to support a direct link between the financial distress of farmers and a variety of mental and physical health problems. Constant financial pressure, the threat of losing farms that had been in families for generations, and the feelings of personal failure and guilt took their toll.

By the end of the 1980s the overall agricultural economy had improved and much of the media attention to the farm crisis went away. Thousands of farmers and their families had lost their livelihood and been forced off their farms. There were, however, a number of farmers who were still hanging on. They had managed to survive but they were not by any means free from financial problems. Like Darrel and Juanita, many carried significant debt burdens and experienced a series of weather-related crop disasters in the early 1990s. While the nation turned its attention to other issues, many farmers and rural residents continued to experience unrelenting financial distress.

Most have had to take extraordinary measures to try to maintain their farms. Like Darrel and Juanita, many work at other jobs off the farm. Most have cut expenses to the bone, giving up things like health and life insurance. Some receive food stamps and others are forced to get emergency food assistance from church pantries or relatives. Their children want for new clothes, and trips to the doctor and dentist are reserved for emergencies. These were (and are) the forgotten farmers. At least during the mid-1980s there was some national recognition and response to the problems of farmers. By the 1990s, nobody wanted to hear about the problems of farmers, and most of the programs that had been set up to help financially distressed farmers had disappeared. The COMHT (Counseling, Outreach and Mental Health Therapy) program mentioned in the film by Juanita, which provided free mental health counseling to the Buschkoetters, is just one example where the end of federal or state aid spelled the end of services to farmers and rural residents.

The stress that struggling farmers experience is qualitatively different from the work-related stress you or I might experience; it is even different from the stress of a factory worker about to lose their job. Not only financial distress, but also intergenerational conflicts about running the farm contribute to this. Farming is more than a job, more than a career--it is an all-consuming way of life, and a legacy that is held in trust from generation to generation. "Losing the farm" is tantamount to losing one's sense of personal and family identity. Many farmers see losing the farm as failing both previous and future generations of their family. Farmers have equated the grief from the loss of their farm to the death of a family member.

How we interpret the things that happen to us can also be a source of stress; if we do so in a way that causes guilt or anger, we feel worse and add further stress. It is difficult for farmers and rural residents not to personalize the financial distress they experience. Because second-guessing is natural, farmers and others often wonder if was "poor management" that created the financial problems. On the farmer's part, this leads to an overwhelming sense of guilt and may put them at risk of suicide. "Blaming the victim" has been the source of much of the conflict that surfaced in rural communities during the farm crisis.

If guilt is the result of self-blame, then anger is the result of blaming others for one's circumstance. Many farmers experienced a sense of betrayal as a result of lending practices that at one point in time encouraged them to borrow money and later blamed them for getting in over their heads. Farmers rightly perceive that government policies and corporate practices have contributed to the situations they find themselves in, and many farmers and rural residents blame urban-based and urban-biased policy makers for their plight. This political disenfranchisement contributes to a growing anger which can be expressed in either destructive or constructive forms. Farmers are not just victims, they can direct their anger into effective actions, not just at the personal level, but as a political force as well on the local and national level.

Social support provides a buffering effect for stress; the greater the support of friends, family, the community, and society as a whole, the less impact stress will have on individuals and families. Everyone who eats has a stake in family farms, necessitating rural-urban coalitions to support the preservation of family farming.

Fortunately, in the film we see circumstances improving for the Buschkoetters and there is every indication that they are recovering from the years of financial and personal distress. There is also evidence that Darrel and Juanita have changed in the way they look at their options and have a better understanding of each other, which will serve them well in the years to come. We wish them the best.

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This guide was created for use with the program "The Farmer's Wife," a
co-production of David Sutherland Productions,Inc. and FRONTLINE in association
with the Independent Television Service (ITVS).

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