BY: JESSICA BEUKER
It’s been three decades since the height of the farm crisis, when farmer suicide rates were at an all time high. Today the suicide rates among farmers are still high—the second highest of any job right now. Environmental stressors are a big contributing factor, with extreme drought, heavy snowfall and all around erratic weather affecting crops. Mental illness is a big part of the picture as well. When economics falter, farmer suicides increase, and experts worry that the farm crisis is far from over. While efforts are being made among many groups, individuals and organizations, rural-agricultural behavioral health remains an under-researched, underfunded field, with a lot of surrounding stigma.
The 1970s were a prosperous time for American farmers. According to Grist, exports doubled and gross farm income rose by about four per cent each year. In the 1980s prices began to drop dramatically. This was the beginning of the farm crisis. Drought struck in 1983 and by 1984 agricultural debt had reached $216 billion. Within the five years between 1981 and 1986, more than 60,000 farmers were left homeless due to foreclosures. During the farm crisis, more than 900 farmers died by suicide in the upper Midwest states alone.
This is an international issue: In France, a farmer commits suicide every two days. Since 1995 India has had more than 270,000 farmer suicides. In the U.K., farmer suicide rate multiplied by 10 times during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001.
The stressors that farmers face are not going away anytime soon. Environmental factors—and therefore factors that are out of a farmer’s control—play a huge role in the success or failure of a crop. According to Bloomberg, 2012 marked the second wettest year on record and severely dented America’s wheat production. It was only a year earlier, in 2011 that Texas was going through a dry spell. The drought resulted in farm losses totaling $7.62 billion. Extreme weather events completely undermine production, resulting in a huge loss for the farmer and the economy. It’s issues such as these, which leave little control in the farmer’s hands and therefore lead to high stress levels and mental health issues.
Tension is also much higher on family farms, where financial issues are often intertwined with personal ones. Currently Edward Staehr, director of NY FarmNet, a crisis hotline centre, says that call volumes have been high, with his hotline receiving 6,000 calls a year. In an interview with Grist, Staehr says that over half of the calls come from family farm-related issues. Between 50-60 per cent have some type of interpersonal issue that needs to be dealt with such as generational conflict, sibling rivalry and relationship issues. Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in rural mental health and family relationships, says that poor communication, grudges and resentment run high, but that dissolving the partnership is even more problematic because the financial loss is so staggering. “The relationships become too tension-filled or so hurtful that they can hardly stand to be around each other,” says Farmer in the Grist article. “People that don’t really belong together are still trying to make it together and they don’t know how to solve their issues between them.”
According to Grist, Michael Rosmann, a clinical psychologist specializing in agricultural behavioral health, believes that the rural agricultural population should be classified as a health disparity group. Farmers consistently face barriers to proper healthcare because of their unique environmental, cultural and economic factors. By making farmers a health disparity group, government funding could be directed toward addressing the issue.
Director of NY FarmNet, a crisis hotline centre, say his hotline receives 6,000 calls a year. Farmers consistently face barriers to proper healthcare because of their unique environmental, cultural and economic factors.
Another issue is the societal messages that are directed towards men. Men have always been taught to be hyper-masculine and distance themselves from anything deemed feminine, such as showing emotion. Men are taught to be self-reliant, strong, confident and financially successful and independent. They are often discouraged from reaching out for help. Rossman has found that male farmers commit suicide twice as often as non-farming males and thinks that this is a factor. It’s hard for farmers, especially those who live in isolated or small towns where everybody knows your business, to seek out the help that they need.
One solution would be to make access to mental health services more private, by increasing the amount of mental health care professionals who make house calls. Another, more broad solution is to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health. Grist has outlined a number of organizations that are attempting to do just that. For example, Farm At Hand, a free app founded by Kim Keller, helps farmers manage day-to-day operations. Their campaign, #HereForFarmers, which was intended to raise awareness for mental health, has raised $12,000 so far and will be donated to Farm Stress Line, a crisis hotline in Canada.
Because of their unique circumstances, farmers should be considered a health disparity group and given access to affordable, appropriate behavioral healthcare services that are accessible at all times.
Despite the efforts of organizations like Farm At Hand, or individuals like Rossman, agricultural behavioural health remains a large issue. The stressors that farmers face, such as environmental factors, cannot be fixed through community involvement. Because of their unique circumstances, farmers should be considered a health disparity group and given access to affordable, appropriate behavioral healthcare services that are accessible at all times. A study by Rossman, Behavioral Health Care of the Agricultural Population, suggests there is a momentum to develop a competent healthcare workforce. As of yet there are no graduate schools that train agricultural behavioural health therapists and there is no textbook on the subject. However, certain American universities are moving in that direction and farm stress units in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have developed extensive manuals to train their telephone responders how to appropriately respond to calls and handle situations. These developments suggest that the future of agricultural behavioural health is promising.