Farmer suicide rates outpace almost any other profession in America, advocates say.
“The data from January 2022 from the CDC says suicide rates in agriculture are worse than almost any sector at 36 per 100,000,” said Becky Wiseman, a mental health first aid instructor with NY FarmNet. Only construction and mining have higher rates.
Founded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, NY FarmNet offers a confidential hotline at 1-800-547-3726, for agricultural workers to discuss mental health, family and financial crises.
It also offers mental health first aid courses to teach people how to recognize signs of mental health challenges, help those in crisis and maintain mental health with self-care techniques.
One will be Oct. 19 at Albright Grange on Route 13 in East Homer, N.Y. FarmNet also will host a Talk Saves Lives webinar on suicide awareness and prevention Sept. 29.
Kendra Jannsen, FarmNet’s office administrator, says a series of free mental health first aid courses through spring 2023 is funded by a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Wiseman said unique professional stressors cause mental health adversities in the agricultural industry. “One of the major ones is their long hours and isolation,” she said. “They work mostly alone and often suffer fatigue, pain, and the hardships of physical labor.”
“Farming is so dangerous. A slip of a hand can have a tractor overturn and kill a farmer. Some have gotten caught in manure spreaders and combines and killed,” Wiseman said.
Uncontrollable factors like weather and unpredictable yields also weigh heavily on farmers. “Too much rain floods crops. Dry seasons mean not enough crops,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman said dairy farms have also been hit financially: “Many are selling their farms and cows. Milk has been very difficult right now because milk prices are not steady,” she said.
KC Slade, who has worked around dairy farms all his life, stressed the community’s dependence on dairy, and its price swings. “We have a heavy dairy population. Dairy is king in Cortland County,” Slade said.
“Some of the biggest recent stressors in dairy are the cost of what it takes to grow crops and feed cows. And buying equipment,” Slade added.
Slade suggested dairy farmers often try to fix the roots of their stresses rather than seek help with the mental health fallout.
“As far as reactions to stressors, most farmers will take to educating the general public. There is a big gap between what the public understands of farms and what really goes into that,” Slade said. “Their reaction is trying to get the point across about what needs to change. That’s a strength and an amazing part about dairy farmers: their resilience. When the chips are down, they keep working.”
Many farmers’ insurance policies do not cover mental healthcare, Wiseman said. There is also the matter of stigma, more severe in the farming community.
“If you park your truck at so-and-so’s clinic, there’s a fear people will see you,” she said. “Sometimes you have to meet farmers at a firehouse or library to talk to them about it.”
People can watch for physical manifestations of mental health problems, Wiseman said, which may be easier for farmers to speak about: “Head and back aches, muscle pain, insomnia, chest pains and digestive issues,” she said. “These are symptoms they can talk about instead of what’s causing them.”
Wiseman also suggested looking for changes in routine and behavior. “If you’ve known the farmer, you can observe changes in their behavior. Have you seen something going on that’s not normal? Is he not going to church? Is he more isolated?” she said.
To help, Wiseman said the first step is simply connecting with the farmer. “Listen. Don’t feel like you have to fix it. That’s not what mental health first aid teaches. It says we’re the people who listen and give hope,” she said. “And then we provide a referral.”