Witt family farm
Witt family farm

Kentucky farmers are the focus of a $500,000 grant awarded to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to address stress, mental health and suicide prevention. UofL School of Nursing researcher Cheryl Witt is a part of the grant that will help the KDA expand efforts through the Raising Hope – Supporting Healthy Lives on Kentucky Farms campaign. UofL News reached out to Witt to learn about her role in the project and why the topic is so dear to her heart.

UofL News: Describe your role in the Raising Hope campaign. 

Cheryl Witt
Cheryl Witt

Witt: I oversee all the project timelines, coordinate communication and workflow by meeting with the project directors and the entire team on a regular basis. Now that we have expanded our efforts and projects, this will include working closely with the program evaluators to ensure they have information they need to effectively evaluate the impact of the programs and also help us to plan for our future growth. 

UofL News: What do you hope will be the outcome of this work?

Witt: Our current project aims to reduce stress, depression and suicide rates in our farmers and farm families. I want farmers to know that they are supported and appreciated for the work they do and what they do is important to our communities, state, nation and world. I want them to know it is ok to seek help for mental health and there are resources available.

My hope is the non-farming community will be more informed about what farmers do and deal with on a day-to-day basis, and what it takes to get food to your table.

As a health care provider, I also want the health community to better understand the culture of farming to relate to the farmer when providing care. One goal is to expand and grow programs of outreach, education, research and prevention services while meeting farmers where they are to encourage participation. I believe this will improve the health of our farmers and farm families and minimize or postpone chronic disease, disability or death.

UofL News: Talk about mental health challenges specific to farmers. 

Witt: Farming is not just an occupation, but a way of life. The land, crops, livestock, family and facilities are all a part of the famer’s soul. The attachment to these puts tremendous pressure on the farmer to maintain and be fiscally and physically responsible for all, because this is a part of their identity. The current economic state has caused rising operation costs, yet farmers get little or even less profit than ever before. Their income can depend on things that are out of their control: insects, weather and government regulation. This has resulted in many farmers or their partners to seek off-farm jobs to establish insurance or simply afford the farm.

The farmer may be working the same land his/her ancestors have farmed for generations. What if that farmer is the one who loses the farm or lets it run down? All of this causes a great deal of distress. Working an off-farm job and then coming home to perform farm work that must be done despite fatigue, puts the farmer at a higher risk for injury in an already dangerous occupation.

As the farmer ages, the physically demanding work can be more difficult, take longer to perform and sometimes impossible to complete. The recognition of losing this ability can be devastating to the farmer. The independent, stoic personality that serves the farmer well with farm operation also serves as a barrier when seeking health care, including mental health care.

UofL News: How did you decide to focus your research primarily on the female farmer? 

Witt: Depression and suicide rates in production farmers has risen to the forefront as a public health interest, but largely had focused on the male farmer. As more women pursue farming as an occupation, I thought it might be a good idea to look into the same subject in women who operated farms.

Women and men are different, think differently, react differently and seek health care differently. It was important to me to investigate those differences to better identify interventions to improve the mental health of both genders of farm operators. I would say my large umbrella is the health and safety of farmers and farm families. Physical and mental health are closely aligned and one affects the other. My goal is to help farmers and farm families remain healthy and in the field for as long as possible with a good quality of life.

UofL News: You come from a family of farmers, and this work must be dear to your heart. Tell us about that, please.  

Witt: I am no different than any other person who grew up in the field farming with their dad, grandfather and siblings. It is your life and an internal piece of you. You know what it feels like to contribute to the project at hand, how important it is to your family to get the job done before it rains, and oddly enough to please your family with your quality of work. There was no better feeling when, at the end of a long, hot day, to see my dad pleased with work completion.

As I reflect on my own life and have watched the evolution of my family into the next generation of farming, it is hard to do some of the work I do and listen to the stories farmers tell me. This is because I have lived and continue to experience the stress of farming, the cycle of never-ending work and the pain of losing ability and identity. But, I also experience joy when farmers tell me stories of their new grandbaby, best crop ever or their son/daughter showing livestock.

My dad attempted to talk my son out of farming saying, “you will work yourself to death and never have any money.” I had to remind him that we farm for other reasons, and it is not money. We are rich in so many other ways.

UofL News: Describe your journey of pursuing mental health research in the agricultural community. 

Witt: I have always had an interest in rural nursing since I graduated from nursing school in 1991. I enjoy everyday people and their stories of everyday life. When I began teaching at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, my colleagues soon realized my passion and I began to work with Fran Hardin-Fanning, who focused in the area of rural Appalachian health, and Deborah Reed, who focused on the health of the older farmer. These two mentors convinced me to return to school for my terminal degree.

At that time, Reed was the only nurse who worked with the agriculture population as a focus. Knowing my personal background and my love for farming, she felt I would be a good candidate to follow in her footsteps when she retired. Interesting how these two women saw things in me that I didn’t realize myself. They have never steered me wrong and continue to be available for friendship and advice.

My natural personality to talk with people from all backgrounds has resulted in a series of divine interventions that have led into a sprinting career within a population that I truly am determined to make a difference in their health. I want do this within the communities and culture of individuals because that is where people are most comfortable.