U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures have shown that American workers in the farming, fishing and forestry industries have some of the highest suicide rates of any professional group.
The CDC reports that the suicide rate among workers (ages 16-64) has jumped 34% from 12.9 suicides per 100,000 workers in 2000 to 17.3 per 100,000 workers in 2016. Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average, and could be higher because some farm suicides could be masked as farm-related accidents, according to the CDC.
The CDC found a number of reasons why suicide rates among farmers and those who live in rural areas in general are higher than their urban counterparts. Access to mental health is more sporadic, rural populations tend to earn less, and overall health factors tend to be lower in rural areas.
A John Hopkins study found another reason why suicides are higher in rural areas — guns. Per capita more people own and use guns in rural areas. The study found in Maryland alone, that the suicide rate was 35% higher in rural parts of the state.
Study leader Paul Sasha Nestadt, a post-doctoral fellow in the Bloomberg School’s Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program, said that more robust rural firearm safety and control initiatives could help policymakers who are grappling with rising suicide rates, which rose to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, the highest rate in 30 years.
“The reason that rural suicide rates are higher is because people in these areas are killing themselves with guns,” Nestadt said. “The media focuses on homicides committed with guns, but only one in three deaths by firearm are homicides. The other two are suicides. Most of the other leading causes of death are going down. Suicides are going up, and firearms are a big reason why.”
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture is taking steps to address mental health in rural communities. Brittney Schrick, assistant professor of family life for the Division of Agriculture, said her department is implementing two new programs to discuss the rising rate of suicide among agriculturalists.
“In response to the CDC report, our team became aware of a program developed at North Dakota State University intended to address stress and promote wellness with a rural audience in mind,” she said. “Mental health awareness is important in order to help county agents address the problem of rural stress from a fully informed perspective and to generally increase their knowledge of mental health.”
Factors that directly impact farmers that they often have little control over include fluctuating crop and input prices, interest rates on land and loans, the weather, and finding good laborers.
Managing Stress and Pursuing Wellness in Times of Tight Margins, or “Farm Stress” for short, is a one-hour program facilitated by county Family and Consumer Science agents and geared toward farmers and other agricultural workers.
“The aim of the Farm Stress program is increasing awareness of rural stress issues and warning signs of stress challenges, identifying ways to communicate about and cope with stress, and identifying local resources and sources of support,” Schrick said. “This program offers participants information about stress management, depression and suicide, as well as wellness promotion.”
The second program, Mental Health First Aid training, is an eight-hour, evidence-based course that will be offered to cooperative extension service agents with the goal of equipping them to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The program builds mental health literacy and helps participants identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness.
Mental Health First Aid will be offered to agents in regional training sessions beginning in May. There are currently three training sessions scheduled, open to both county and state staffs.
The Farm Stress program has already begun, as agents publicize it at county production meetings and other venues. Schrick’s team has supplied county agents with materials to conduct the program in their home counties. This will be available statewide upon request to local county agents.
“County agents are very excited about the Farm Stress program,” Schrick said. “We have had very positive feedback and lots of materials requests from agents who are publicizing and scheduling programs in their counties.”
Schrick said the spread of mental health awareness has the potential to help many in a demographic that is often seen as independent and self-sufficient.
“My hope is to see improvement in wellness across Arkansas’ agriculture workers and families and decreased rates of suicide and depression in this population,” she said. “Removing the stigma around stress and mental health can have lasting and wide-reaching impact.”