How the Texas A&M College of Agriculture & Life Sciences is preparing students to change mental health stigmas in the agriculture industry
BY LAUREN PROVOST, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
In and out of the classroom, faculty members at Texas A&M University are changing the lives of students in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. These professors are starting tough conversations regarding their students’ mental health and ultimately addressing stigmas that reach beyond the borders of Aggieland.
The Quarantine Blues
In 2019, 12 million adults seriously considered committing suicide according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Another 1.4 million actually attempted to take their own lives.
This trend has only worsened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has solidified beliefs that environments of extreme isolation and economic instability have led to an increase in mental health issues across the world.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, students at Texas A&M have significantly suffered due to lack of social interactions, unforeseen financial burdens and general feelings of loneliness. This combination has caused a significant increase in students seeking help for anxiety and depression.
Since classes moved to non-traditional formats in March 2020, Jennifer Strong, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of agricultural leadership, education and communications, has observed her students having a tough run in the current era of online learning.
Strong said that she can definitely tell the difference in her students’ overall academic success when online versus in a traditional learning environment. She was able to pinpoint a distinct difference when instructing a hybrid course, where she noticed her in-person students thriving, whereas the students at home on Zoom seemed to be missing out on materials.
“I have so many Zoom horror stories,” Strong said. “I have had students attending class on the golf course and even had to private message a student to let her know I could see her naked boyfriend on camera.”
While she laughed about the absurdities that can only come from online learning, Strong concluded that a student’s learning environment truly matters when it comes to mentally thriving enough to make it through the unique demands of the college lifestyle.
“Finding the motivation to actually get stuff done has been my biggest struggle,” said Avery Herron, senior animal science major. “I’m stuck at home all the time and I especially have a hard time paying attention in my online classes.”
Herron especially misses interacting with her friends, whether in or outside of the classroom. As a graduating senior, she has high hopes for her future as an operations management associate for Cargill.
In the Field
Pam Lewison, agricultural research director for the Washington Policy Center and Texas A&M graduate, authored House Bill 1434: to provide the agricultural community mental health hotline services. The memo revealed that the agricultural community already carries unique, heavy emotional burdens and on-farm suicides have significantly increased as a result of the pandemic due to additional stressors being added onto the pile.
Lewison personally understands the struggles that farmers go through because she farms forage crops with her husband. She found significant interest in the topic of rural mental health when one of her close friends shared that he lost his niece to suicide after hanging herself in their barn.
“It brought home to me that there is really a problem with this in rural communities,” Lewison said. “I wanted to help shine a light on that in a different way.”
Because rural communities are so physically isolated from urban mental health resources, farmers and ranchers are left without proper access to seek help when needed. Even if they gain access, urban resources lack the empathy necessary to understand the specific stressors of agriculture occupations, Lewison said.
“Most farm families walk in their door and everything that compounds their stress and anxiety is still waiting for them outside,” Lewison said. “In an urban setting, you don’t walk away from your job and still see it.”
In early 2021, the American Farm Bureau elevated rural mental health as one of their major priorities for the year, Lewison said. She also attributed South Dakota as being a leader in rural mental health resources.
Currently, there is very limited research done on rural mental health issues, Lewison said. However, there is hope for the future. States like Washington, South Dakota and many more are working hard to address the topic and support their agriculture communities.
Leading the Change
By serving as leaders and experts in their respective disciplines, faculty members in the college work hard to prepare their students to excel in industry. In class, they cultivate a culture of integrity, excellence and transparency— even when it comes to addressing tough conversations like mental health.
Codie Wright, assistant director of the Weston Agrifood Sales program, said she strives to make her students aware that therapy is always an option and she keeps an open door policy. In one of her lectures, Wright shared that she has been through mental health struggles herself.
“If you are not mentally strong and healthy, nothing is going to work well in your life,” Wright said. “Anxiety, depression and negative self talk is going to be very destructive.”
Conner Neumann, a senior agricultural economics major, said he took Wright’s lecture to heart. Neumann said he went home after class feeling a lot more positive knowing that his professors genuinely cared about him.
“It’s amazing to be at a university where professors truly care about my needs and struggles,” Neumann said. “I’m not just a number, I’m an individual and I’m seen.”
Strong is also not a stranger to being transparent in class about her personal struggles with her mental health. In 2017, Strong’s son passed away in a car accident. She often shares with her students that she suffers from anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Strong attributes her authenticity to being able to help her students connect to her own personal struggles, and hopefully assist them in seeking help.
“I think one of the reasons why I went through that is so I can use my experience to show students that having problems with your mental health is completely normal,” Strong said.
John Ryan Rodriguez, senior agricultural leadership and development major, said that Strong’s story and values were clearly communicated to his class from day one. She treated him with respect, knowing that at points during the semester he may need personal days to recover mentally from the battles he faced as a college student.
“Nothing had to be kept quiet,” Rodriguez said. “We would come to class and always knew how everyone was feeling.”
Beyond the Classroom
The students of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture & Life Sciences will soon work both directly and indirectly with farmers and ranchers across the nation. Their leadership and transparency will impact these producers and hopefully change the stigma regarding mental health discussions in rural culture.
“One of the defining characteristics of Generation Z is their ability to talk openly about mental health, and that will transfer wherever they go— whether that is an urban or rural community,” Strong said.
She has confidence that her students will begin the leadership process wherever they end up and will ultimately challenge stigmas surrounding mental health in agriculture.
“I wish I could sit across the table from the people reading this and say, ‘Dang it, you matter.’” Wright said. “Letting people know that they have such a unique set of skills that are purposeful in their walk in life is so important when addressing mental health issues.”