The growing mental health shortage in the United States took on a new awareness in the world of equestrian sport after losing three internationally known trainers to suicide in a month’s time. Mental health awareness and suicide prevention are now topics of discussion among the horse community. Equestrians Steffen Peters, Lauren Sprieser, and Ange Bean opened the dialogue by sharing their stories.
Research now shows that are mental health is significantly been affected by the global pandemic. Therefore, adding even more emotional strain to an already high stress industry—not to mention the economic impact on the horse world. Horse professionals are not able to continue business as usual and we probably haven't totally seen the financial impact this will result in long-term.
We know that access to mental health care in the US has barriers. This is due to cost and lack of insurance coverage. In addition, clinician availability is limited and there is a huge cultural stigma around mental health. I would add that for professional’s in the horse business time restraints also play a key factor in accessing care. Furthermore, finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with and trust is a challenge in itself.
I grew up on a farm in rural North Dakota and remember hearing stories of farmers committing suicide. I also remember my father being a work-a-holic. We never took family vacations or days off for that matter. The livestock had to be fed (even on holidays) and farming is like gambling solely on the unpredictable weather conditions. Agriculture and farm related work not only require long hours and manual labor, it is also emotionally and financially stressful and takes a toll on mental health. This leads to a sense of inadequacy. We keep issues to ourselves because we feel weak or our pride prevents us from seeking a support structure for our mental health.
Farmers face a multitude of unique stressors, such as difficult economic conditions and extreme weather. These challenges have led to a recent increase in the number of farmers taking their own lives. In addition to physical injuries, farmers are also at risk of behavioral and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, substance use, and death by suicide. Due to environmental, financial, and social factors, there are a number of stressors inherent in farming and farm ownership.
Research from the National Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) shows farming ranks in the top ten most stressful occupations. People working in agriculture related jobs have a higher rate of health concerns such as high blood pressure and heart disease. This study was specific to agriculture farming and ranching. However, I feel confident saying that horse farms, including breeding and show barns, easily fall into this category.
This is paradoxical in that we have all heard the sayings, “Horses are my sanity” and “My horse is my therapist.” Not to mention the popularity in the field of equine-assisted activities and therapies. Although, equine-assisted therapies tend to deal with a totally different demographic and population. For the purpose of this article, I am discussing professionals in the horse farm related industry.
I continue to see discussions regarding mental health awareness. Indeed, awareness is the first step to overcoming our cultural stigma about mental health and psychotherapy. That said, I am not seeing much talk regarding preventive mental health. How do we reduce our frequent mental distress and prevent depression and physical health issues before it leads to thoughts of suicide? Let’s start by examining the definition of stress.
What is stress?
One definition described stress as, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measure frequent mental distress (FMD) by asking, “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” The CDC stated that mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. More than 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. In addition, one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
How do you know you are stressed?
It is important to identify common stressors, understand the effects of stress, and how to pursue increased health and wellness. We all have our own personal stress zone. Everyone may react to stress differently, however, recognizing stress is key. What steps can you take to stay out of the high stress zone? The pressure to win, sell a horse, or qualify for the next big show can build up stress. Over time, our maximum tolerance level gets maxed out and we spiral down into a hole of depression, guilt, or shame. As a result, we may experience digestive issues, trouble sleeping, a sense of hopelessness, and other health problems. When we don't feel good physically, it makes our high-stress job even more challenging!
Learn to Recognize Warning Signs
Stress symptoms are warning signals from your body—physical and emotional. Warning signals include, headache tension digestive problems, low energy, difficulty sleeping, overeating or under-eating, difficulty concentrating, irritable behavior, anger, impatience, restlessness, hopelessness, anxiety, depression and more. Just like you maintain your farm equipment and clean and your tack, you need to take care of you.
What can we do?
Good stress management is good farm management. Just like you have tools for training horses and giving lessons, you must have a tool box for your physical and mental health. Practical tools include exercise, organizing your priorities, taking breaks to rest and recharge, eat well, and get enough sleep aka. self-care.
I am not here to emphasize suicide prevention or mental health. I am here to discuss preventive care. We must walk through our pain in order to come out the other side. This process of walking through our pain starts with radical self-acceptance. Allow yourself to feel what you feel with no self-judgment and know that you can and will come out the other side. Self-acceptance and self-care are beginning steps to building your resilience and being proactive in prevention.
Our society teaches us how to numb the pain but not walk through it. Why? Because it hurts. It sucks. And it is hard work. We numb ourselves on junk food, alcohol, prescription and non-prescription drugs, social media, and even being a work-a-holic.
We must have tools in our tool box. These tools include, self-care, mindfulness, and connection. The process includes pushing past the mental health stigma and practicing self-compassion.
Managing your stress should be your number one priority in managing all aspects of your farm and business. The quality of your health is what allows you to function on a day-to-day basis. It determines how you make decisions and run your operation. Your health is what allows you to ride and work several horses in a day, deal with customers, and travel to shows.
Your health is your number one asset to your farm and business. Stress management and the pursuit of overall health and wellness. Reaching out for help with your health is wisdom and strength—not a weakness. Sustaining your business means sustaining yourself along with the relationships around you.
Blue ribbons, high test scores, and selling quality horses are how we measure success in the horse world. However, we know that increased stress levels lead to physical issues and poor mental health. Inherit stresses come with the territory of the business, which is why health management is imperative.
Lastly, I believe that our health is very much interconnected with the health of our animals. When we aren’t healthy, we can’t take the best care of our horses or run our business. We can’t perform our best at shows and we all know that horses mirror our emotions. On the flip side, when our horses are sick, it stresses us out. Managing health isn’t just about exercising and eating right. It is about reducing stress and taking care of our mental and emotional needs. Take the time to take care of yourself—your horse and your business will thank you for it!
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