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Nearly half of young, local farmers experience depression, UH survey finds

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More than 400 local farmers participated in a mental health survey from the University of Hawaiʻi's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The study is part of a broader effort from the federal government focusing on the mental health of farmers in the U.S. — as part of the 2018 farm bill.

CTAHR's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences led the effort in the survey. Chair Thao Le said the federal government has been interested in the mental health of ag producers since the 1980s.

"Since the 1980 farm crisis, the mental health health, depression and suicide just exploded during the 1980s," Le said. "Farmers were becoming extinct professions. Many had farm collapse, and they were overwhelmed with debt — they lost their land."

According to Le, surveys and studies on the mental health of farmers had been ongoing since the 1980s. But those studies never took place in Hawaiʻi until 2021.

The survey found that 48% of farmers under the age of 45 years old experienced depression, and 14% struggled with suicidal thoughts. That's nearly two times higher than the general population of Hawaiʻi, and 17% higher than the Centers for Disease Control's 2021 report on public health workers.

Le told HPR the main contributing factors are uncertainty and a lack of control over production.

"For farmers, there's no guarantee that what you put in the ground is going to yield what you hope it's going to yield. So there's huge uncertainty," said Le. "So that came up top for young farmers. Financial stressors, time management, knowing how to manage your time, because farming is 24 hours — you don't take a break."

Among other stressors includes economic challenges, such as trade wars, and legislative actions — primarily in areas of support systems, land access, and invasive species.

But depression isn't only experienced by younger farmers, but also older individuals. The survey found farmers 46 years and older, 29% of respondents said they experienced depression.

Unlike surveys and studies on the continental U.S., CTAHR's survey also asked family members about their mental health.

"Unfortunately, we had a very low sample — only had 27 family members and friends responded," said Le. "The rates from them were even higher than what I'm sharing — the 35%."

CTAHR has several programs to address farmers' needs, including one that focuses on their health and well-being. However, Le said more needs to be done to support local food producers — particularly in areas such as training for mental health professionals and more residents supporting locally grown food.

"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.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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