Mental Health of Hired Farm Workers

A hired farm worker is an agricultural worker who is hired to work on a farm that someone else owns. Hired farm workers are usually hired contractually on a piecework basis—the more fruit they pick, for example, the more money they are paid.

The population of hired farm workers is composed of both migrant and seasonal farm workers. Migrant farm workers are individuals who migrate from one place to another to earn a living in agriculture. Seasonal farm workers, in contrast, earn a living in agriculture but live in one location throughout the year. Migrant farm workers generally live in the southern half of the United States during the winter months and migrate north before the planting or harvesting seasons. The population of migrant farm workers is ethnically diverse, with ethnic composition differing according to region of the country. For example, the majority of migrant farm workers in the Midwest stream are of Mexican descent, and many of these individuals are immigrants.

In a sample of Mexican-American farm workers in central California, Vega et al. (33) found that a environmental stressors and reduced physical health status were related to high levels of psychological distress as measured by the Health Opinion Survey, a measure of general psychopathology. In addition, they found that individuals aged 40 to 59 years reported elevated distress in comparison to other age groups. They conjectured that middle age is an especially high-risk period for farm workers since significant occupational and life hazards exist to progressively degrade farm workers' health and functional capacities. Vega et al. concluded that the high frequencies of environmental stressors and hazardous working conditions experienced by Mexican American hired farm workers place them at extraordinary psychological risk.

Hovey and Magaña (34-37) studied Mexican migrant farm workers in Ohio and Michigan. They found that the farm workers experienced relatively high levels of anxiety and depression. Nearly 40% of the farm workers revealed significant depression on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression Scale (CES-D). Typically about 20% of individuals from the general population have depression on the CES-D. About 30% of the farm workers demonstrated anxiety on the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI). Typically about 16% of the general population indicates anxiety on the PAI. The authors found that high acculturative stress, low self-esteem, family dysfunction, ineffective social support, low religiosity, and a lack of control and choice in the decision to live a migrant farm-worker lifestyle were significantly associated with greater anxiety and depression. It thus appears that positive self-esteem, effective family and social support, and religiosity may serve to help migrant farm workers cope against anxiety and depression.

In addition to collecting quantitative data such as the above, Hovey and his research team (38,39) collected interview data from each participant in their effort to explore the experience of being a migrant farm worker. As part of each interview, the interviewer probed for information regarding stress and coping by asking the farm workers about their perceptions of the difficulties that they had encountered as migrant farm workers. The interviews were conducted in an open-ended format so as to generate data in the participants' own words. Through the use of content analyses, the narrative data were organized thematically. These analyses resulted in the identification of 23 stressor categories that represent the stressors that the farm workers commonly experienced. These are listed in Table 22.2.

The narrative data also suggested that many migrant farm workers utilize an inactive coping style. The migrant farm workers frequently perceived the stressors of rigid work demands, poor housing conditions, hard physical labor, exploitation, and unpredictable work as external, uncontrollable, and unchangeable. Their perceptions ("This is how life is ... we just put up with it") appear to reflect the chronic nature of their stresses. Given this chronicity, some migrant farm workers have difficulty identifying immediate mechanisms for coping, which may lead to a learned helplessness similar to that mentioned earlier for farmers. This inability to avert ongoing stress creates an increased susceptibility for anxiety and depression (38,39).

Implicit in the stress model is the notion that two migrant farm workers, for example, may experience the same stressor(s) with equal frequency and duration, yet may not experience the same severity of stress. This is because one of the farm workers may appraise the stressor(s) as relatively more threatening, thus inducing more stress.

To more precisely explore the relationship of migrant farm worker stress to anxiety, depression, and other mental health indicators, Hovey (40) developed the Migrant Farm Worker Stress Inventory (MFWSI). The MFWSI measures both the type of stressors experienced by migrant farm workers and the severity of stress experienced in response to the stressors. Respondents rate each of the 39 items on a five-point scale (0 = "have not experienced"; 1 = "not at all stressful"; 2 = "somewhat stressful"; 3 = "moderately stressful"; 4 = "extremely stressful"). The MFWSI items are listed in Table 22.3. Possible overall MFWSI scores range from 0 to 156.

After its validation, Hovey (41-43) utilized the MFWSI in a large-scale project that examined the mental health of migrant farm workers in western Colorado. Data particular to the scale itself are summarized in Table 22.3. The mean scores and standard deviations of each item are given, according to gender. Gender differences were evident for several items. For example,

Table 22.2. Stressors experienced by migrant farm workers.

Being away from family or friends

Hard physical labor/physical pain related to farm work

• Difficulties due to the actual work itself:

■ Difficult physical nature of work

■ Physical pain and health consequences related to work

■ Not having enough water to drink while in the fields

Rigid work demands

• Difficulties associated with the structure of the work environment:

Unpredictable work or housing/uprooting

• The unpredictable nature of finding work or housing

• The feeling of instability due to constantly being uprooted

Poor housing conditions Low family income/poverty/poor pay Limited access to health care Language barriers

Geographical and social isolation

• Being physically isolated

■ Difficult to meet people

■ No place for grocery shopping

Emotional isolation

• Inability to confide in others

• Keeping feelings inside rather than sharing feelings with others

Lack of transportation/unreliable transportation Education of self or children Discrimination from society Exploitation by employer women were more likely to feel worried about being deported and not having a work permit. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to feel unsettled and to worry about transportation and the structural demands of farm work. The table also rank-orders each of the 39 items. Language difficulty is the highest endorsed stressor for women (fourth for men), whereas being away from family members is the highest endorsed stressor for men (second for women). In regard to overall MFWSI scores, greater migrant farm worker stress was heavily linked to lower self-esteem and social support and greater hopelessness, anxiety, depression, and suicidality.

Hovey's overall work in the area of farm-worker mental health suggests that migrant farm-worker stress—defined as the stress resulting from the stressors associated with the migrant farm-worker lifestyle—increases the risk for hopelessness, anxiety, depression, and suicide. His work has also identified possible coping resources including family support, social support, self-esteem, religiosity, and hopefulness for the future. Healthy usage of these

Table 22.2. Stressors experienced by migrant farm workers. (continued) Lack of day care and supervision of children

• Worries over not having anyone to supervise their children while they worked

Socialization of children

• Worrying about possible negative influences in the social environment of their children

■ Fewer moral values of friends of children

Loss of spouse

• The spouse no longer being in the home

■ Spouse leaving

■ The spouse being kicked out of the home

Domestic abuse/poor spousal relations Undocumented status

Acculturating to new environment

• Lack of familiar foods

• Lack of Spanish-language media

Migration experience

• Stressors related to the migration experience itself

■ Owing money to individuals who helped them cross the border

■ Dangerous situations such as swimming across polluted waters or walking extremely long distances in the desert to avoid being caught by immigration authorities

Paperwork for social services Responsibilities specific to being a woman

• Duties that some view as belonging solely to women

■ Husband not helping with childcare and household duties because it is the responsibility of the woman

Source: Data from Hovey and Magaña (38) and Magaña and Hovey (39).

coping strategies may influence one's appraisal of stressors and lead to reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression (44).

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