Advocates say farmer suicide rates exceed almost any other occupation in America.
“January 2022 CDC data says that suicide rates in agriculture are worse than almost any other sector at 36 per 100,000.” said Becky Wiseman, a mental health first aid instructor at 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 helpline at 1-800-547-3726 for farm 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 problems, help those in crisis, and maintain mental health with self-care techniques.
One will be held on October 19th at Albright Grange off Route 13 in East Homer, New York. FarmNet is also hosting a Talk Saves Lives webinar on September 29 on suicide education and prevention.
A $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding a series of free first-aid courses for mental health through the spring of 2023, according to FarmNet office administrator Kendra Jannsen.
Wiseman said unique job stressors in the agribusiness lead to mental health issues. “One of the biggest is their long hours and isolation,” She said. “They mostly work alone and often suffer from fatigue, pain and the rigors of physical work.”
“Farming is so dangerous. A coup d’état can cause a tractor to tip over and kill a farmer. Some got caught in manure spreaders and combine harvesters and died.” Said Weisemann.
Farmers are also burdened by uncontrollable factors such as the weather and unpredictable yields. “Too much rain floods the crops. Dry seasons don’t mean enough harvests,” Said Weisemann.
Wiseman said dairy farms have also been hit financially: “Many are selling their farms and cows. Milk is very difficult at the moment because milk prices are not stable,” She said.
KC Slade, who has worked on dairy farms his entire life, highlighted the community’s reliance on dairy products and their price volatility. “We have a strong dairy herd population. Dairy is king in Cortland County,” Said Slade.
“Some of the biggest recent stressors in the dairy industry are the cost of growing crops and feeding cows. And buying equipment Added slade.
Slade suggested that dairy farmers often seek to address the roots of their stress rather than seeking help with the mental health consequences.
“As far as responses to stressors go, most farmers will educate the general public. There is a huge gap between what the public understands about farms and what is really behind it.” Said Slade. “Your reaction tries to make clear what needs to change. That’s a strength and an amazing part of dairy farmers: their resilience. If the chips are down, they keep working.”
Many farmers’ insurance policies don’t cover mental health, Wiseman said. There is also the issue of stigma, which is more severe in the farming community.
“If you park your truck at so and so’s clinic, there is a fear that people will see you.” She said. “Sometimes you have to meet farmers at a fire station or library to talk to them about it.”
People can look out for physical manifestations of mental health issues, Wiseman said, which might be easier for farmers to talk about: “Headaches, backaches, muscle aches, insomnia, chest pains, and digestive problems,” 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. “Anyone who knows the farmer can observe changes in his behavior. Have you seen anything that is not normal? Doesn’t he go to church? Is he more isolated?” She said.
To help, Wiseman said, the first step is simply to contact the farmer. “Listen. Don’t feel like you need to fix it. That’s not what mental health first aid teaches. It says that we are the people who listen and give hope.” She said. “And then we’ll issue a transfer.”