Why are farmer suicide rates higher? Suicide rates for farm operators and workers are significantly higher than the rest of the overall working population in the U.S. But why?
The conclusion comes from a new study, published in The Journal of Rural Health, that was led by Wendy Ringgenberg, assistant professor of health care administration at Des Moines University in Iowa.
What the study found was that over the course of 19 years, from 1992 to 2010, 230 farmers took their lives, while 171 died from homicide.
During that timeframe, these farmers died from suicide at an annual rate ranging between 0.36 and 0.95 per 100,000. Americans in all other occupations combined did not surpass 0.19 per 100,000.
The Des Moines University study also found that farm operators and workers that were male, white, and from the ages of 35 and 54 had increased odds of suicide over homicide compared to females, non-whites, and those younger than 35 years old.
So what is the culprit? Many farmers deal with high levels of stress including failing crops, coping with work-related injuries, as well as potentially living in an isolated environment, unable to easily access mental health services.
As for Canadian farmers, the picture is less clear. An unsubstantial amount of research has been conducted in Canada on this matter, although a Canadian study, led by W. Pickett with the Department of Emergency Medicine at Queen’s University, similarly looked into suicide rates among male farm operators compared to other males in the general public.
The study found the Canadian Farm Operator Cohort identified 1,457 cases of suicide from 1971 to 1987. “Age-standardized rates of suicide for those aged 30-69 were 29.2 per 100,000 person.
“After adjustment for age differences, provincial suicide rates among farm operators were generally lower than or equivalent to those observed in the comparison populations of Canadian males,” stated the abstract.
Pickett’s team speculated since Canadian farm communities traditionally have high levels of social support, this could serve as protection, preventing extremely high rates of suicide among farm operators.
The U.S. study concluded both suicide and homicide are present within the agricultural industry, and the former is the prevailing cause of farmer’s death. It suggests it would be beneficial for suicide prevention programs to be explored for this industry.
Another researcher thinks he knows exactly why farmers have such as tough time.
“Farming is a lonely occupation and this has a negative impact on the mental health of farmers”, says Ashlinn Flood, who surveyed hundreds of U.S. farmers about their mental health as part of a research project. Flood found that farmers would be willing to talk to a family or friend about mental health issues, but were reluctant to seek the help of a councillor.
Farmer suicide rates. Is Canada’s health care system to blame?
But depression expert Terezia Farkas says Canada’s health care system may be the culprit for some farmer suicides.
“If you’ve idealized farming as an easy occupation, it’s not,” Farkas says. “Farming is characterized by high stress. You live your profession 24/7. A farmer is both boss and employee. Sick benefits and medical leave depend on the same person. Canadian farmers have to pay into unemployment insurance but usually don’t qualify for the benefit when they become unemployed. Financial pressures, livestock disease, poor harvest, climate change, government policies and legislation can devastate farmers”.
Farkas agrees that farmers are reluctant to seek the help of a professional, but says rural support networks like the ones that have been set up in the U.K. could help.