November 25, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following up on our report Farm Safety Includes Mental Health posted last month, we continue exploring the critical issue of escalating suicide rates among farmers.
PART II: Suicide Risks on the Farm
“The more farmers understand about controlling our own behavior, the more likely we are to remain optimally functional as farmers and ranchers and make sound decisions to be behaviorally and physically healthy.” – Dr. Michael R. Rosmann, farmer and leading clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral science in agriculture
During National Farm Safety week in mid-September one of the focus topics involved farmer health and suicide prevention. In a Southwest Farm Press article Dr. Michael Rosmann emphasized the importance of understanding and observing signs of advanced stress-related behavior in America’s farmers and ranchers.
Warning signs of stress or thoughts of suicide may include indications of withdrawn behavior, less communication with family members, and the way farmers interact with others.
“Do farmers still laugh from time to time and are they sleeping normally and restfully and getting enough exercise? If not, they may be suffering from stress and anxiety. Family members who are well read on the subject may be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and reach out to help before it’s too late,” Rosmann says.
Research indicates that agriculture is now ranked as a primary industry where stress and anxiety is on the rise. Low crop prices, unfavorable weather, natural disasters, escalating debt and challenging trade issues are just a few of the reasons farms and ranchers feel as though they are fighting an uphill battle.
He notes 91% of farmers cite financial pressure as the number one contributor to stress on the farm, and this type of stress can and often does lead to depression.
“It’s interesting to note that farmers and livestock producers suffering from high levels of stress and depression can relay the effects of their anxiety to farm animals. For instance, workers in livestock confinement units who are emotionally stressed often experience higher numbers of veterinarian visits, or see higher somatic cell counts in the milk of dairy cows.
“I would say the effects of their emotional state can even be seen in their crops,” he said.
Rosmann reports that when he started his work with farmers in the 1980s about 65% of the calls asking for stress-related help were from women. In recent years, that number has reversed with 65% of first calls coming from men, a “dramatic shift.”
Better recognition of stress and anxiety on the farm
Rosmann sees some encouraging developments. For one, those suffering from high anxiety seem a little more likely to seek conversations with others, usually a physician, crop or livestock consultant or some other industry-related professional.
“That’s just a first step and doesn’t replace finding professional help for behavioral problems, but it is a positive sign and should be encouraged,” he says.
Help often comes from surprising resources. For example, lenders are now more sensitive to the behavioral problems on the farm and ranch. Rossman says they are often more ready to discuss the challenges of addressing financial debt, though they may not have the resources or ability to offer better solutions.
In addition, pastors and ministers are beginning to address family stress in rural communities, sometimes from the pulpit but more often through one-on-one counseling.
In an interesting development, some other industry-related resources are cropping up.
“Veterinarians are more likely to talk to their human clients about what is going on, and farmers seem to be responding because they view them as on their side. In fact, many veterinarians are increasingly getting master’s degrees in counseling so they can talk to farmers and help with grief issues and losses,” he said.
The need for more rural treatment centers
Rosmann says recently there has been more recognition and support for more programs, mental health professionals and mental health facilities and treatment centers in rural areas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC), the suicide rate for farmers and ranchers was roughly 32 out of every 100,000 people in 2015 —using data from only 17 states.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) recently introduced the Seeding Rural Resilience Act — a bill that aims to curb rural suicides. The bill would implement a voluntary stress-management training program in the agriculture industry and provide $3 million to create a public service announcement campaign designed to reach rural families.
The bill’s funding seeks to add to the $10 million authorized last year for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to better address mental health and stress stemming from the farm economy.
Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $1.92 million in four competitive grants supporting projects to provide stress assistance programs to individuals who are engaged in farming and ranching. Those funds are coming from the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network as authorized by the latest Farm Bill.
These and other support programs are overdue. The American Farm Bill Federation reports the USDA currently is projecting farm income in 2019 will rise to about $88 billion, including $33 billion, or about 40%, related to trade assistance, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities farmers are still waiting to receive.
On the opposite side of the coin, farm debt in 2019 is projected to be a record, $416 billion, with $257 billion in real estate debt and $159 billion in non-real estate debt, leaving many farmers with more debt than income.
With the exception of only four states, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies over a 12-month period ending in September this year have risen across the country. In all, 580 filings, up 24% from the prior year, marks the highest level since 676 filings in 2011.
Continuing dialogue is needed
Dr. Rosmann says much more dialogue is needed to help farm and ranch families understand and recognize anxiety, stress and behavioral changes before they reach critical levels, and the best method of achieving that is by reading and understanding the many causes and discovering the appropriate response to the circumstances that often lead to suicide.
A couple of those underlying and often least expected causes may be surprising he notes, including the role that prescription medications and the use of certain agricultural chemicals that can contribute or complicate erratic behavior and more serious conditions.
In our Part III article in December, we will address how these elements and the added level of stress brought on by the holidays can complicate stress conditions in the rural community, all in an effort to increase awareness of the serious problems associated with stress and anxiety on the farm.
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