Employment and economic success are vital to our well-being.  Persons engaged in agriculture, like everybody else, are pleased when success occurs in their chosen vocation but particularly sensitive to feelings of failure that accompany loss of the farm or layoffs from agricultural occupations.

Agriculture is a vocational path that entails production of items we need to survive: food and material for clothing, shelter and fuel.  That others depend on agriculture contributes to the agrarian population feeling vulnerable when problems occur that stop farmers from working.

Unemployment is a threat to our well-being.  Few circumstances in life can erode our sense of self-worth more than becoming unemployed.  Remaining unemployed when others are gainfully working heightens our despair.

The urge to produce food, clothing, shelter and fuel, along with the urge to acquire the resources that enable us to produce these necessities, is a basic human drive.   The drive is somewhat akin to territoriality in animals, but more complicated.  Survival of the human species is dependent on this drive, called the agrarian imperative.

Even if we are not engaged in agriculture as our life’s work, we feel the need to take care of our families and to contribute to the overall welfare of the human population.  We can’t all be farmers or ranchers; the vast majority of people in the industrialized world have other occupations that earn income for the care of their families and communities.

Indeed, some nonfarm family businesses (e.g., a family-owned restaurant or dealership) are passed from one generation to the next and their attachments to the business are much like those of agricultural producers to their land.  When business closure occurs or when employees are laid off, the unemployed people become scared they won’t be able to take care of their families, and sometimes even themselves.

Unemployed people feel shame, fear that they won’t obtain a new job, and uncertainty about being able to fulfill obligations such as to pay for their children’s healthcare and educations.  Most unemployed people feel they are a drain on society during this time, when what they want most is to be contributors.

Initially, when the bad news becomes a reality, we gear up to deal with assumed and real threats by invoking the fight/flight/freeze response, which I wrote about in June 2012.  In other words, we try to cope with unemployment, but when unemployment becomes chronic, we wear out from the stress.  

Over time, anxiety and apprehension give way to depression and sometimes suicidal thoughts.  Then, hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, and anger become the primary feelings associated with unemployment.  

Long-term stress takes a toll on our immune system.  I drew on a meta-analysis of 30 years of inquiry by Drs. Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller that was published in July 2004 in the Psychological Bulletin for an explanation.  

Acute stressors lasting minutes to several hours actually fortify our immune system, for our bodies temporarily produce more neutrophil and macrophage cells that congregate and produce toxic substances that fight invading pathogens.  Antibodies can accumulate, natural killer cells are released and proteins are released that produce inflammation–the body’s signal that it is fighting invading pathogens.

Segerstrom and Miller indicate when stress becomes chronic, such as unemployment, almost all functions of the immune system become negatively affected.  The immune system can become overwhelmed by bacterial or viral pathogen invasions because of its weakened defenses.  

The body’s defense system can also undergo mutations that allow already existing predispositions to diseases, such as many cancers, to emerge.

Behavioral health difficulties also increase during unemployment, as illustrated by a small rise in the U.S. suicide rate during the current recession.  Sometimes the effects are felt by the unemployed after a recession as well.  

A longitudinal study authored by Drs. Anthony Garcy and Denny Vagero in the June 2013 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, reports that the suicide rate of 3.4 million Swedish men and women did not change during their deep economic recession from 1993-1996, but the suicide rate of men who remained unemployed over the next five years increased significantly in comparison to employed men, while the suicide rate for Swedish women did not change significantly, whether employed or not employed.  

The effects of unemployment are more pronounced for farm men than for those not engaged in farming.  The suicide rate of displaced farm men quadrupled the rate of suicide of nonfarm men during the U.S. recession in the 1980s.  

The suicide rate of women indicates they were less affected by unemployment than men.  Women shared the economic upheaval, stress and emotional insecurity of unemployment, but they had better coping strategies than men.  

Women tended to seek emotional support more readily than men and they talked more honestly than men about their frustrations and worries.  There is a lesson in this finding for farm men: seek helpful supports and talk candidly about deep concerns.

Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

Share your thoughts. Email Dr. Rosmann at [email protected], or visit his website at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.  You can call him at his office in Harlan, Iowa at 712-235-6100.