Farmers in Hawaiʻi struggle with depression, UH study finds
Farmers in the Hawaiian Islands who are 45 years old or younger are going into 2023 facing unprecedented mental stress, with a recent University of Hawaiʻi study finding 48% have experienced depression and 14% have struggled with suicidal thoughts.
The figures are almost two times higher than Hawaiʻi’s general population, and 17% higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2021 report on public health workers.
These dramatic findings are the results from groundbreaking research undertaken by researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
The university conducted the study as part of a broader federal mandate and funding focusing on farmers mental health.
“This study validated a lot of what we’ve already observed in the field, but also bore a bumper crop of details and gems that will really help us serve our local ag workers,” said Thao Le, principal investigator of the study and director of the “Seeds of Wellbeing” (SOW) project. “One of the biggest surprises was that who reported using professional help to cope faired worst, which is contrary to what we expected.”
UH researchers currently have several programs underway to address farmers’ needs, including a program to focus on the relational components of health and wellbeing. The Ag Mental Health Mentors program aims to educate and provide concrete tools to peers, family members and neighbors to provide care and support, and to feel confident in initiating “talk story” about mental health.
“Even though the younger generation are more willing to talk about mental health issues, we also did not expect that 44 ag producers would sign up to be ag mentors within a span of less than a month,” Le said.
The good news? More people than ever recognize the importance of farming. A survey on public perception with 400 local residents found that 83% see agriculture as important to the state, with 56% saying they were willing to spend more on local produce. Yet, 85 to 90% of food in Hawaiʻi remains imported, and less than 1% of the state budget is for agriculture.
This is challenging for those in the agricultural industry and even more so for certain demographics and sectors in Hawaiʻi such as being younger, of East Asian or Southeast Asian ancestry, or working in the livestock or seed industry. While general uncertainty and COVID topped the list of stressors, farm production, financial worries, pests/invasive species also ranked highly.
“If we want to make sure we have a next generation of farmers and ranchers in Hawaiʻi, we need to be paying close attention to their mental and emotional health,” Le said.
Hawaiʻi is part of the Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture provided funding that allow the project to eclipsed all other western states with 408 ag producers responding to the survey. (California only had 231 Californian farmers responding.)
The results yielded some similar but also unexpected differences compared to the mainland.
The research team currently has several publications under peer review expected to be published in early 2023. The extension team continues to offer workshops to address the identified stressors from the survey.
Seeds of Wellbeing also has produced a series of video and audio podcasts, with more than 1,400 downloads, mental health prevention guides specific to farmers called Cool Mind Main Thing, and a brief media campaign to increase the public’s respect and appreciation for farmers and ranchers – Malama the Farmer.
The Seeds of Wellbeing project is funded by the USDA and Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture and in partnership with other organizations such as the Hawaiʻi Farmers Union United, Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau, Pacific Gateway Center, GoFarm and Oʻahu Resource Conservation & Development Council.
Although this one-year grant-funded initiative ends in March, the Seeds of Wellbeing team will continue the work.