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Can Farming Cure Depression?

Clinical depression affects 1 out of every 10 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women, minorities, and the unemployed between the ages of 45 and 64 are most commonly affected, but depression can strike anyone, at any time, and many cases go untreated for years.

Whether a long-term severe condition or an acute situation resulting from, say, a divorce or job loss, depression can be equally as devastating to its victims, uprooting reality and making life a dark and frightening place. Sadly, recent data reveals that more Americans die from self-inflicted methods than from car crashes every year.

Sales of antidepressants in the U.S., intended to treat depression and anxiety disorders, are big business—generating more than $11 billion annually. But many of the drugs consistently prove to be ineffective in treating a number of sufferers who often end up being bounced back and forth between prescription treatments and their often-inevitable side effects, which include a number of issues including digestive disorders. New research also connects certain seratonin reuptake inhibitors with a significant increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Alternative methods, like changing diet, using natural herbs and supplements—even acupuncture—have been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the effects of depression for some people. Acute situations can respond considerably well to natural treatments, and there's another factor that may also provide some relief from depression: Farming.

While it's true that many American farmers currently have some of the highest rates of depression, it's more connected to issues with earnings and exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers rather than digging in the dirt. A 2004 study out of Norway cites that "considerable mechanization, rationalization, financial strain, and social isolation…have taken place in agriculture in the Western world over the last years,"

But farming itself, particularly organic and holistic farming methods, are proving to be effective in treating symptoms of depression. A network of small-scale farms in the Netherlands receives government funding to help support more than 10,000 people every week seeking to relieve depression disorders by planting vegetables and tending to livestock.

Time spent outdoors assists in relieving symptoms of depression, according to studies conducted by the University of Essex. Researchers found that more than 70 percent of subjects reported feeling less depressed after taking a walk in a highly natural environment. Ninety percent also reported a greater level of self-esteem after being in nature.

Likewise, it's known that regular exercise—a given when working on a farm—plays an important part in regulating hormones and chemicals responsible for boosting mood.

A number of veterans with PTSD symptoms are turning to farming to relieve the symptoms. Michael O'Gorman—founder and executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, an organization that connects veterans with small-scale organic farms—told World Watch that the veterans not only learn new skills, but farming can soften the transition back to civilian life. "Farming provides a unique opportunity for soldiers to find peace and quiet, feed their community and their family, while restoring the farming heartland of this country."


Farmers are at risk for anxiety and depression: the Hordaland Health Study - B. Sanne1, A.Mykletun2, B. E. Moen3,A. A. Dahl4 and G. S. Tell1; Occupational Medicine 2004;54:92–100

DOI: 10.1093/occmed/kqh007

Learn more about Jill Ettinger

Farmer and dog photo: Nick Pye

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