Farmer standing in field at sunset Zoran Zeremski/Getty Images
STRESSFUL TIMES: Many farmers and farm families are, without doubt, experiencing severe stress during this challenging time.

The truth about farmer suicide and mental stress in 2019

The importance of mental health should never be downplayed, but no one should sensationalize it for their own gain either.

Editor’s note: Bill Field is the Purdue University Extension farm safety specialist. This article is adapted from a letter he wrote to all Extension ag, and human and health services educators in Indiana.

By Bill Field          

Farmer suicides have received considerable media attention recently, with the issue being correlated to low commodity prices, late planting due to wet weather, loss of international markets, rural isolation and other factors. One politician declared, “Farm suicide rates are as high as they have been since the Great Depression.”

A news story claimed in bold text, “Farm stress: Suicide a rising health concern.” A fellow at the Bloomberg School’s Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program stated that “more robust rural firearm safety and control initiatives could help policymakers who are grappling with rising suicide rates.” One news release blamed the current administration for the farm suicide problem due to trade issues. Other outlets have used the term “epidemic” to describe the problem.

The challenge with all these claims is that none can be substantiated with reliable published data. Some have proved to be false. For example, the claim that current suicide rates are as high as during the Great Depression was determined as false by the fact-checker PolitiFact. It concluded that there are insufficient data to support such a claim.

Extension educators and specialists are expected to be a source of impartial and evidence-based information. On a topic as sensitive as farmer suicides, we need to exercise extra precautions to ensure the information we disseminate is supported by sound data. Sensationalizing the issue to enhance readership interest, or for political or personal purposes, shouldn’t be part of our agenda, even if we feel passionate about the problem.

Facts vs. claims

What do we know about farmer suicides in Indiana?

First, claims regarding the high suicide rate among farmers have been made for 40 years, with special attention in the 1980s and 1990s. There is, however, no published or reliable data at state or national levels that clearly documents the problem specifically for Indiana.

Second, there is no reliable longitudinal data that documents a trend, either up or down, for Indiana farmer suicides. Statistical comparisons to the Great Depression, or the extremely stressful 1980s, aren’t reliable because there is insufficient data.

Third, rates calculated by the Centers for Disease Control on farmer suicides are problematic, especially when applied to the Indiana farm population.

Rates were calculated using a composite of individuals employed in “farming, forestry and fishing.” The data doesn’t include unpaid labor, homemakers, students or active military who may be doing farm work. Combining the data may also provide a larger sample but makes interpreting the data difficult.

Also, the CDC rates are based upon the estimate of employed workers in agriculture, which unlike many occupations, is relatively dynamic, making reliable calculation of rates difficult. For example, farmers over 65 receiving Social Security benefits are generally not included.

Finally, CDC rates were calculated on the basis of a total documented frequency of suicides for farming, forestry, and fishing for the entire U.S. There were 68 cases in 2012 and 71 cases in 2015. For comparison, in the construction and extrication industry, the CDC documented 1,216 and 1,404 suicide cases in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Any claims of “skyrocketing” suicide rates relying on these data are unfounded and certainly can’t be extrapolated to Indiana farmers.

Suicides vs. farm fatalities

During the 1980s, I monitored Indiana farmer suicides using death certificates obtained from the Indiana State Department of Health. This was part of a farm stress initiative conducted in conjunction with the Indiana Mental Health Association. At that time, suicide frequency was highest in the five primary urban areas of the state. There was no significant increase in cases within the farm community, though the media gave the topic considerable attention, as it is doing now.

The farmer suicide frequency in the 1980s was less than the number of fatalities caused by work-related injuries, which were also documented using death certificates. In other words, farm-related accidents caused a greater number of deaths than were documented as suicides. If non-work-related fatal accidents — such as motor vehicle crashes, fires, drownings and off-road vehicle crashes — were included, the number of fatal accidents involving farmers would be substantially more than the number of suicides.

There has been no published data that would lead me to believe that the situation has changed since then. In fact, the current rates per 100,000 workers of farmer suicides, as published by the CDC, and for farm work-related fatalities per 100,000 workers are almost identical.

We recently released a summary of 2018 farm work-related fatalities prepared by my staff at Purdue University. No such summary exists for farmer suicides, either here at Purdue or at the state level. Until someone undertakes a compilation of farmer suicide data, from reliable sources, any claims about frequency, rates or trends are simply speculative.

Mental stress is real

However, although data doesn’t support the notion that farmer suicide rates are increasing, or especially that the issue is an epidemic, many farmers and farm families are without doubt experiencing severe stress during this challenging time. Sadly, farmer suicides do occur, and the resulting impacts are devastating for affected families and rural communities. In addition, excessive stress often leads to health problems, family issues and perhaps substance abuse.

We all need to become familiar with excellent resources which are available to deal with these issues. When we believe someone is suffering from mental stress, we should encourage them to seek help.

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