Let’s Talk Mental Health

By: Taylor Anne Fie

With farmworker health, the discussion tends to lean towards the physical: the toxic effects of pesticides on the body, the breakdown of joints and chronic pain from manual labor, and malnutrition. We often skirt around the emotional, not out of lack of interest, but because talking about mental health opens a whole other can of worms. It’s important to realize, though, that farmworkers have unique emotional stressors and face significant barriers to treatment, all contributing to poor health outcomes, both physically and mentally. Researchers estimate the prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders in farmworkers across multiple studies to be between 20-50%,1 higher than the national averages, which are under 20% for either disorder.2

So, what stressors affect the mental health of farmworkers the most? Social isolation is a big one with individuals reporting greater depressive and anxiety symptoms as a result.3 Feelings of isolation are particularly prevalent among farmworkers for several reasons: most speak little to no English, individuals are often separated from family members who were deported or chose to remain in their home country, and farmworkers are subjected to a harsh anti-immigrant political environment and culture.

Another major stressor cited by farmworkers is working conditions.3 As you can imagine, performing manual labor for long hours and for minimal pay is not just tiring, it’s also incredibly damaging to the mental and physical health of farmworkers. Many feel taken advantage of by their employers and fear that asking for more frequent breaks or better working conditions will lead to their unemployment. Farmworkers have little legal protection anyways, so many find it futile to speak up about their rights.

There are certainly some things we can do to address the stressors that seem to contribute most to feelings of anxiety and depression in our farmworker population. Advocacy is one way to tackle social isolation and work conditions. We can do our part by keeping up with immigration policy changes and supporting legislation that keeps farmworker families together, increases their access to the health care system, protects their rights as human beings, and improves work conditions and wages. An easy way to stay up-to-date on immigration reform is by visiting farmworkerjustice.org and clicking the “sign up” button on their home page to get advocacy updates.

Another way to address mental health in the farmworker community is through empowerment. Lack of control and vulnerability are heavy contributors to anxiety and depression, and helping immigrants regain some semblance of control is one way to counteract this imbalance. Groups like Farmworker Justice, Farmworker Advocacy Network, and the National Farm Worker Ministry advocate for the rights of these individuals, help them form labor unions, and empower farmworkers to advocate for their own health and wellbeing through education and guidance. These organizations have made great strides in improving working conditions for farmworkers—especially in North Carolina—and are always in need of support and donations.

Here are the links to their websites:

Farmworker Justice

Farmworker Advocacy Network

National Farm Worker Ministry

References:

  1. Burke Winkelman S, Chaney EH, Bethel JW. Stress, Depression and Coping among Latino Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013;10(5):1815-1830. doi:10.3390/ijerph10051815.
  2. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005 Jun; 62(6):617-27.
  3. Hiott, AE, Grzywacz, JG, Davis, SW, Quandt, SA, Arcury, TA. Migrant Farmworker Stress: Mental Health Implications. The Journal of Rural Health. 2008;24:32–39. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0361.2008.00134.x

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