Farmer in a field
(Photo by Red Zeppelin/ Pexels)

Every spring in Grinnell, Iowa, farmers purchase seeds and fertiliser for their summer crops. It is also a time when farmers frequently seek advice and discuss strategies to maximise their corn and soybean harvests. However, beneath this seemingly routine activity lies a troubling reality: a growing problem of untreated anxiety and depression among farmers, leading to alarmingly high suicide rates.

Why Is the Suicide Rate So High?

The high suicide rate among farmers can be attributed to several factors. While the availability of firearms in rural areas is significant, mental health specialists believe that cultural and economic pressures also play a crucial role. A 2023 review of research on farmer suicides across several nations, including the US, linked this devastating trend to these pressures.

"Farmers who died by suicide, particularly men, were described as hard-working, strong, private people who took great pride in being the stoic breadwinners of their families. They were often remembered as members of a unique and fading culture who were poorly understood by outsiders," wrote the authors from the University of Alberta in Canada.

The fact that many farmers are middle-aged or older males, who are generally more at risk, may contribute to the elevated rate. Edwin Lewis, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) official who assists in supervising the situation, acknowledges the difficulty in pinpointing how much of the higher suicide risk among farmers is attributable to their line of work. "But it's broader than that for sure," Lewis said.

Addressing the Crisis

To tackle this terrible trend, the USDA is funding training sessions aimed at teaching medical professionals how to talk to farmers about their challenges while making a living off the land. According to USA Today, many farmers are reluctant to seek mental health treatment because they believe therapists or doctors are unable to relate to their daily experiences.

Family therapist David Brown, who oversees the training, emphasised that many farms have been in families for generations. The current owners often feel they would be disappointing their ancestors if the farm were to fail. Brown pointed out that circumstances beyond farmers' control, such as weather, inflation, changes in government agricultural support programmes, political conflicts, and illnesses or injuries, can heavily impact a farmer's mental health.

Life as a Farmer

Jason Haglund offers a unique perspective on the situation, working part-time as both a mental health advocate and a farmer. He and his brother-in-law grow corn and soybeans on the 500-acre farm where Haglund was raised.

Haglund, who co-hosts an Iowa podcast addressing the need to enhance mental health services, explained that many farmers remain in the field due to their strong emotional connection to their ancestry. His family has owned the farm since the 1880s, having survived bankruptcy during the agricultural crisis of the 1980s. Haglund feels a responsibility to keep the farm alive.

"Let's be honest: Farming at all these days isn't necessarily a good financial decision," he said. However, he noted that farmers have always valued self-sufficiency. Whether it's an overly anxious phase or a broken tractor, farmers deal with their issues independently. "With the older generation, it's still, 'Suck it up and get over it,'" Haglund said.

The Role of Firearms

According to Haglund, another factor that increases the risk of suicide is the prevalence of firearms among farmers. Guns are a common sight in rural areas, where they are viewed as effective pest-control measures. "You can't go into a rural community and say, 'We're going to take your guns away,'" he explained. However, on many occasions, a friend or trusted therapist may advise a depressed person to temporarily give up their firearms to another person who can store them safely.

Community and Mental Health Awareness

Haglund advocates that knowing how to manage mental stress shouldn't be limited to medical practitioners. He urges people to research "mental health first aid," a nationwide initiative aimed at spreading information about signs of mental illness and strategies for addressing them. This initiative is essential for communities to better support those struggling with mental health issues.

The high suicide rate among farmers is a complex issue influenced by cultural, economic, and social factors. While the availability of firearms and the pressures of maintaining a family legacy contribute to the problem, the lack of access to mental health resources and the stigma around seeking help are significant barriers. Initiatives like the USDA's training sessions and the "mental health first aid" programme are crucial steps towards addressing this hidden crisis.