How can we stop farmer suicides?
Trigger warning: This piece discusses suicide, depression, and suicide’s aftermath.
Mona Lee Brock went into the office early that morning, as she always did, when she received a panicked phone call. The telephones in the crisis center were lighting up all over the place, as was common. This particular call was from a farmer’s wife. A day prior, the farmer had spoken to Brock and agreed not to hurt himself, but now his wife couldn’t find him. And she was afraid. Brock asked where the farmer kept his .410 shotgun.
It was the height of the ’80s farm crisis, one of the greatest economic turmoils since the Great Depression. Drought and defaulted loans left hundreds of thousands of farmers broke. Many farmers became homeless or worse yet, turned to suicide.
Brock visited their home later that morning. The farmer’s wife stayed inside the house while Brock went to investigate where her husband might be. She found him in the driveway, at the left rear wheel of his truck. He had already shot himself in the head.
“It just leaves you speechless,” Brock says, “You just forget to breathe, you forget to live.”
It’s been three decades since the farm crisis swept the country, but suicide rates among farmers are still high — the second highest of any job right now, in fact. According to a recent study of workplace suicides between 2003 and 2010 published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, jobs with the highest suicide rates include “protective service occupations” like police officers and firefighters, with 5.3 suicides for every 1 million workers. Farming, fishing, and forestry jobs collectively follow closely behind with a suicide rate of 5.1 per 1 million workers. Some experts put the rate at nearly twice the rate of the general population.
The environmental stressors farmers face today aren’t disappearing anytime soon, either. Extreme drought in California, erratic weather throughout the Midwest and Corn Belt, and heavy snowfall in the Northeast have made farming that much harder. In a business where livelihoods revolve around deep-seated connections to the land, where family connections run even deeper, and where firearms are easily accessible, mental illness is reemerging as its own farming crisis. Understanding the mental health of our farmers and rural communities is perhaps as important as ever.
Farmer suicides tend to increase when farm economics falter. The 1970s were a prosperous decade for American farmers: Exports more than doubled and gross farm income rose about 4 percent each year. Riding the wave of financial success, many farmers took out new loans to fund their expanding businesses. But farm prices dropped dramatically in the ’80s. President Carter embargoed grain exports to the Soviet Union in 1980, resulting in surpluses. Drought struck in 1983. By 1984, the country’s agricultural debt topped $216 billion. In just five years, between 1981 and 1986, more than 60,000 farmers were left homeless due to foreclosures.
In turn, many American farmers took the financial hardship out on themselves. Throughout the 1980s, more than 900 farmers died by suicide in the Upper Midwest alone, in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. The Oklahoma farm Brock visited on that tragic morning was one of hundreds she visited during her decades-long career as a crisis counselor for a Farm Aid-sponsored line. Sometimes she averaged 48 calls a day.
More often than not, Brock entered a home only to find distressed farmers waiting for her, shotguns resting across their legs. Many had fields of corn, wheat, barley and rye, but fridges and pantries completely bare of food. Brock understood their hardships: A farmer’s wife herself, her family farm went under in 1985, and her husband suffered a fatal heart attack soon after.
Today, some experts worry the issue of farmer suicide is far from over. “In California and southeastern Colorado, where the drought is still pronounced and other places where there is severe drought, yes, there are parallels,” says Robert Fetsch, who counsels farm and ranch families as co-project director of the Colorado AgrAbility Project at Colorado State University. Last year alone, California was predicted to lose more than $800 million in crop revenue and more than $200 million in dairy and livestock — and the state’s megadrought shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
Even within the last 10 years, high-profile farmer suicides have made national news. Take Dean Pierson — a dairy farmer from Copake, New York — who shot his 51 milking cows in their heads one January morning in 2010 before taking his own life with a rifle shot to the chest. Or Jelle Hans Reitsma, a California farmer, who at 37, and millions of dollars in debt for his two dairies, shot himself in a walnut orchard in 2008. A note left for the manager of his local bank branch read, “Welcome to the kill.” Theirs are just two of many untold stories.
In New York state, a brutal winter has taken its toll on dairy farmers in particular (about 60 percent of New York’s farms are dairy operations). Edward Staehr, the executive director of NY FarmNet, a crisis hotline center, says call volumes have spiked of late — over 50 a week in some cases. That’s because wind and heavy snow have lead to a lot of structural damage on farms, like roof collapses. At the same time milk prices have nosedived, leading to lower profits. (New York dairymen aren’t alone: In September, I wrote about how California’s dairy industry is also teetering on the edge of collapse). Staehr says his hotline now receives 6,000 calls a year.
On family farms in particular, where personal issues are often intertwined with financial ones, the tension is that much higher. “Over half our calls, between 50 and 60 percent, have some type of interpersonal issue that has to be dealt with before progress can be made in the farm business,” Staehr says. “Could be intergenerational conflict or family conflict, sibling rivalry, relationship issues, and so on.”
Family farms are a “hidden stress issue in agriculture,” adds Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist based in Missouri who specializes in rural mental health and family relationships.
“A lot of families have this complex arrangement of farming with their adult children or siblings,” Farmer says. Poor communication, grudges, and resentment can run high, but the financial losses of ending the family farm are far too serious to ever think about disbanding the business. “The relationships become too tension-filled or so hurtful that they can hardly stand to be around each other. But dissolving the partnership is more problematic, the financial losses are staggering,” he says. “So 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.”
For some, losing the family farm can feel like losing everything. It’s an end to generations of heritage, self-worth, and a place in the world. For many, losing the family farm means losing a home, too.
Paul Force-Emery Mackie, incoming president of the National Association for Rural Mental Health, was a teenager living on his family’s dairy farm in Hillsdale, Mich., when the farm crisis hit.
“I remember it was, quite frankly — the honest word would be frightening,” Mackie says.
Mackie recalls one day in particular, when he accompanied his father to a bankrupt dairy farm. He walked into the milkhouse not more than two hours before an entire 80 to 100-cow herd was to be sold off.
“The guy who was losing the farm and losing the cows, losing his life, losing everything that he did, was standing over the milk tank, eating a plate of food that his wife had just dropped off,” he says. “She was crying, she was upset. And all I heard him say was, ‘The cows didn’t deserve this, they have to be milked.’ He still had that sense of commitment to the animals, his family.”
Such memories are one of many reasons Mackie has committed his life to studying rural behavioral health. Even though his family’s operation managed to weather the 1980s farm crisis, he watched a lot of other families lose their farms. “If the family farm is gone, it’s essentially gone forever, because its no longer in the family,” Mackie says. “That cultural, historical tie to that piece of property has essentially been shattered. Psychologically, that’s a bad place to be for anybody.”
Despite the efforts of Mackie, Farmer, and others, rural behavioral health is still an under-researched, underfunded field. “Behavioral health is the area of healthcare that agricultural people understand the least well,” says Michael Rosmann, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in agricultural behavioral health and one of the field’s leading researchers. “It is the area that probably is in most need of research and clarification so that we improve the understanding and treatment of behavioral health issues.” Rosmann and other experts believe the country’s rural agricultural population should be classified as a health disparity group, which according to the CDC, would mean that farmers consistently face greater barriers to proper healthcare due to the unique environmental, cultural, and economic factors. If farmers and rural America were more widely recognized as a health disparity, more government funding could be directed toward addressing the issue.
“We can’t get the money through the CDC and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to look at these issues,” Rosmann adds. “CDC funding has been threatened and has been cut back greatly. Until we invest in the right tools, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Through his work, Rosmann has found that nearly two thirds of the agricultural population responds normally to stressors in their environments, while a third go on to experience depression or addiction. The longer someone like a farmer is exposed to these stressors, the less likely they are able to cope. The risk of suicide also increases with age, economic stress, and exposure to stress.
Rosmann also says that male farmers commit suicide about twice as often as non-farming males. Robert Fetsch, the counselor at Colorado State, points to the societal messages bestowed upon men. From a young age, men in general are taught to distance themselves from anything feminine; they’re expected to be occupationally and financially successful, confident, and self-reliant; and they’re discouraged from reaching out for help should they find themselves feeling hurt or hopeless. The insular nature of rural culture doesn’t help, either, and may make these pressures more pronounced in farming families. In isolated towns, where everyone knows each other, their families, the cars they drive, and the tiniest, most intimate details of their personal lives, it’s that much harder to seek help for mental illness.
“I’ve had many men tell me, ‘I’m not going to park outside the mental health center with my pickup, everybody’s going to know I’m nuts,’” Fetsch says. “That is a problem.”
Loosening the stigmas around mental illness throughout rural America remains an important and constant challenge. Part of the solution lies in making access to mental health services more private in these insular communities, by increasing the number of mental health professionals who make house calls for example, or by establishing counseling centers in more discreet areas, like at universities or in agriculture extension offices.
In the meantime, a sprinkling of organizations, advocates, and caring individuals are working to bring more attention to the problem. Kim Keller is a third generation family farmer in Canada and cofounder of Farm At Hand, a free app that helps farmers manage day-to-day operations. In February, the company launched a campaign, called #HereForFarmers, to raise money for mental health awareness. The social initiative has already raised more than $12,000 so far, all of which will be donated to Farm Stress Line, a 24/7 crisis hotline based in Canada.
“You work with your family, day in, day out, you go on holidays with your family, your lifestyle is your work,” Keller says. “That’s why we launched the #HereForFarmers campaign, to bring awareness to what a farmer goes through each year and how much work it actually does take. It’s important that everyone has access to resources to help them cope and to help them not feel alone.”
And then there’s Mona Lee Brock, the crisis counselor in Oklahoma. At 83, Brock is now retired, but she still receives the occasional phone call. Some farmers call seeking help, others call to express their thanks. For years at Christmas time, Brock says she found her office full of yellow roses and poinsettias, sent to her from farmers whose lives she convinced were worth keeping.
“I don’t regret a single second of the time that I spent,” Brock says. Though she always took off work for the holidays she and her two sons held dear, like Christmases and their birthdays, she never had a complete break. “As my son said, and this says it all right here, ‘Mama never got to eat a meal with us, she was on the phone,’” she says. “I was there, but I wasn’t. I took care of those telephone calls.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.