Farmers are wired to work — and prone to anxiety, psychologist says

Upcoming Ag Days speaker says he hopes farmers can learn from emerging behavioural research how to better care for their mental health

Farmers attending Ag Days can hear more about what makes them work so hard — sometimes to the detriment of their mental health.

Dr. Michael Rossmann is U.S.-based clinical psychologist and farmer from Iowa, whose entire career has focused on improving the behavioural health of farmers. He will speak in Brandon about his research into the historical, anthropological and psychological underpinnings of farm society that’s led to developing a concept he’s dubbed “the agrarian imperative.” That’s the predisposition passed among successive generations of farmers to work hard — and harder when times get tough.

Farmers driven to survive redouble their effort in times of adversity, and it’s an adaptation that’s helped to select out successful farmers from those less driven, says Rossmann.

But studies of farmers worldwide show the same drive that’s enabled that survival and success also makes farmers particularly prone to mental health afflictions. Being in a state of hyper-alertness and hyperactivity for long periods eventually depletes both the body and brain’s capacity to stay well.

“It has contributed to the success of farm people, but it also sets us up to experience much anxiety and eventually even depression,” said Rossmann who is also the founder of Agri-Wellness, a U.S.-based seven-state organization (

Rossmann will speak about emerging research in behavioural psychology in agrarian societies during a morning presentation Jan. 21 at Ag Days. It will also focus on how farmers can learn to protect their mental health.

These studies reveal a whole new way of understanding ourselves, and can help farmers by learning how to avoid the mental pitfalls that accompany their own psychology.

“The more farmers know how we are made the better off we are, because then we can manage our own personal behaviour,” Rossmann said.

“If we know that we react by working terribly hard and being hyper-alert, then we can begin to follow our own course of adjustment to stress. We can learn how to manage it.”

Janet Smith, program manager with Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services, says she believes farmers will gain valuable insights from Rossmann’s talk. He is also a farmer as well as a researcher, academic and clinical psychologist so he understands agriculture from that perspective as well, Smith said.

“I think what people will get from hearing him speak might help to gel what they already know about themselves and the culture of farming,” she said. “And it behooves all of us to better understand ourselves, in order to learn how to better help ourselves.”

Rossmann will also lead a workshop Jan. 22 at the Brandon Riverbank Discovery Centre. The session titled “Building health, hope and resiliency in the agricultural community” is for health-care professionals, farm financial advisers and others working with the agricultural community, and is being jointly hosted by Prairie Mountain Health, the Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services (Klinic Inc.), and Manitoba Women’s Institute.

That session is aimed at helping the wider community interacting with farmers better understand the psychology of their rural and farm clients. Outside agriculture it’s even less well understood, said Rossmann.

“There is a lot more work to do on that front,” he said.

For information or to register for the Jan. 22 Brandon workshop contact 204-571-4182 or email [email protected] Space is limited so registrations are required by Jan. 15, 2014.

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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