The annual presidential proclamation for National Farm Safety and Health Week isn’t just for farmers, it’s for everyone.

Other persons besides farm residents and employees should pay attention to agricultural safety and health too, such as drivers on rural roads, ATV operators in rural areas, hunters, applicators of farm chemicals, and the providers of healthcare to the agricultural population.  For that matter, everyone who consumes agricultural products has a stake in agricultural safety and health.            

When the National Safety Council urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare the first National Farm Safety Week in 1944, it focused attention mainly on preventing injuries and fatalities to farmers, which were often caused by animals like cattle and horses and mechanical inventions such as corn harvesters.  Although farming was dangerous in many other ways, such matters as stress and suicide were not at the forefront.

Tractors, grain combines, corn pickers which pulled the corn ear off its stalk and shucked it, and hay balers were especially dangerous because the operators too frequently lost their hands, legs and their lives when trying to extract lodged stalks and weeds from the machines.  Most people in farming country know someone who lost body parts in these machines, myself included in both respects.

While initially called National Farm Safety Week, during recent years the revised National Farm Safety and Health Week has greatly broadened its focus.  Equipment manufacturers, veterinarians, agritourists, lumber harvesters, and fishers are now among the many ancillary participants in agricultural endeavors who are being addressed this week.

Over the ensuing decades since 1944, agricultural engineers and equipment manufacturers designed farm equipment to be less hazardous, such as placing safety shields over rotating shafts, augers and chains, rollover protection devices, and cabs on tractors, to name but a few improvements.  Most dairy farmers began milking cows in parlors; farmers mostly stopped using horses for pulling agricultural equipment; ventilators were installed in livestock and grain facilities; and farmers began annual health assessments and carrying telephones.

The Farm Crisis of the 1980s spurred new dimensions for agricultural safety and health by bringing attention to psychological stress and creating legislatively authorized, and nongovernmental, programs to help agricultural producers cope emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially with agricultural issues.  These new efforts included, but are not limited to, farm crisis telephone hotlines and counseling, the AgrAbility program, the AgriSafe Clinic Network, the National Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health, Farm Safety Day Camps and state-funded programs like Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health.

Research and educational training about farm safety and health have become missions of the Cooperative Extension Service at land grant institutions and county Extension offices.  Regional Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health at universities throughout the nation, and at community colleges, such as the National Educational Center for Agricultural Safety at Northeast Iowa Community College, evaluate and promote the well-being of the entire agricultural community and all consumers.    

Despite these improvements in agricultural safety and health, there is an important area of insufficient understanding and prevention: behavioral health problems.  Understanding the behavior of humans, animals and plants has barely begun.   

As regular readers of this weekly column know, behavioral health problems such as family conflict, anxiety, depression, and suicide are major problems for farmers, their families and their communities.  More farmers’ lives end because of suicide than because of all the physical causes of occupation-related deaths through injuries and illnesses.

Screening tests for behavioral health problems are widely available for public use, along with educational materials.  The screening instruments aren’t perfect, but they are the best available; they are mostly based on the symptoms of behavioral health maladjustments indicated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness that professional providers rely on to make behavioral health diagnoses.

Rather than keeping these screening instruments from public use—as in past eras, now organizations are making them available for the education and good of everyone.  For example, recently Google announced the publication of the PHQ-9 (Public Health Questionnaire with 9 questions) online that anyone can access to assess depression, along with follow-up information.     

Many screening tests have become available to the general public, along with information about their use from this organization: Mental Health America.

The screening tests offer information about more than depression.  Screening tests are available for anxiety, bipolar disorder, suicidal behavioral, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), alcohol and other substance misuse, and several other behavioral maladjustments.

The screening tests and interpretative comments are meant to offer sufficient information so that persons know when to consult physicians and behavioral healthcare providers for professional evaluation and possible treatment.  The more everyone connected with agricultural production–and the consumers of agricultural goods as well–understand about behavioral health, the better off we all are.