Advocates say farmers’ suicide rates outpace nearly any other profession in America, which is why they’re sponsoring a mental health first aid program next month at Homer.
“Data released in January 2022 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that suicide rates in agriculture are worse than almost any sector at a rate of 36 per 100,000,” said Becky Wiseman, mental health first aid coach at NY FarmNet. Only construction and mining have higher rates.
Founded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, New York FarmNet offers a confidential hotline at 1-800-547-3726, for agricultural workers to discuss mental health, family and financial crises.
It also offers mental health first aid courses to teach people how to recognize signs of mental health challenges, help those in crisis and maintain mental health through self-care techniques.
The first will be on October 19 at the Albright Grange on Route 13 in East Homer. FarmNet will also host a Talk Saves Lives webinar on suicide awareness and prevention on September 29th.
Kendra Jannsen, director of the FarmNet office, says a series of free mental health first aid courses through the spring of 2023 are being funded by a $25 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Weisman said that unique occupational stressors cause mental health distress in the agricultural industry. “One of the most important is their long hours and isolation,” she said. “They mostly work alone and often experience fatigue, pain, and physical labor difficulties.”
“Agriculture is very dangerous. A slip of the hand can overturn the tractor and kill a farmer. Some fell into the manure spreader and killed him,” Weizmann said.
Uncontrollable factors such as weather and unpredictable yields greatly affect the farmers. “Dry seasons mean there are not enough crops,” Weizmann said.
Dairy farms have been hit financially, Wiseman said: “A lot of people are selling their farms and their cows. Milk has been very difficult at the moment because milk prices are not stable.
KC Slade, who has worked on dairy farms all his life, stressed society’s dependence on dairy products, and the fluctuations in their prices. “We have a large number of dairy products. Dairy is the property of Cortland County,” said Slade.
“Some of the biggest recent stressors in dairy are the cost of what it takes to grow crops, feed the cows. And buy equipment.”
Slade suggested that dairy farmers often try to fix the roots of their stress rather than seek help with the mental health implications.
Regarding reactions to stress factors, most farmers will take to educating the general public. “There is a huge gap between what the public understands about farms and what actually goes into it,” Slade said. Their reaction is to try to communicate the idea of what needs to be changed. This is a strength and a great part of dairy farmers: their resilience. When the chips go down, they keep going.”
Wiseman said that many farmers’ insurance policies do not cover mental health care. There is also an even more serious issue of stigma in the farming community.
“If you park your truck at So-and-so’s clinic, there is a fear that people will see you,” she said. “Sometimes you have to meet farmers at a fire station or library to talk to them about it.”
People can observe physical manifestations of mental health problems, which may be easier for farmers to talk about, Wiseman said: “head and back pain, muscle aches, insomnia, chest pain, and digestive problems.” “These are symptoms that they can talk about rather than the cause of it.”
Wiseman also suggested looking for changes in routine and behavior. “If you know a farmer, you can notice changes in his behavior. Did you see something abnormal? Does he not go to church? Is he more isolated?” she said.
To help, Wiseman said the first step is simply to reach out to the farmer. “Listen. Don’t feel like you have to fix it. That’s not what Mental Health First Aid teaches. It says we are the people who listen and give hope.” And then we make the referral.