Many people have an idealized view of farming as a bucolic profession where days are filled riding tractors and gazing proudly over fields from your front porch. But the reality is that farming is grueling, stressful work—and new data shows it’s an industry associated with higher rates of depression and suicide.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control published a report on suicide rates by occupation groups, and farming, fishing, and forestry topped the list with a suicide rate of 84.5 per 100,000 people. The next highest rate, among workers in the construction and extraction industries, was 53.3. The stats are from 2012, and limited to 17 states, so it only analyzed a fraction of the suicides reported in the US that year (which is partly why they lumped results into broad industry categories). But it’s not the first time researchers have identified higher rates of suicide among farmers: it’s been a perennial finding around the globe for decades.
“It’s not startlingly new to hear that the suicide rate among farmers is high,” said Lorann Stallones, an epidemiologist who researches agricultural health at Colorado State University.
The CDC’s report also complemented unpublished data released by the University of Guelph last week from a recent survey of farmers showing 45 percent of respondents had high stress, 58 percent suffered from anxiety and 38 percent from depression.
“We are not invincible, but we feel we must be,” one respondent wrote in response to a survey question.
“What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of—love, family and a farm—and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad,” wrote another.
Previous research has identified a number of factors that contribute to farmers feeling so blue. For one, farmers work alone for long hours. They have much of their lives and livelihood at the mercy of factors outside of their control—weather, government regulations, corporate agriculture pressure, and disease outbreaks, for example. There’s also mounting evidence that certain pesticides are associated with mental illness in farmers. Combined with a general stigma that surrounds mental illness and a lack of access to mental health care in a lot of rural communities, it’s a recipe for disaster.
But little has been done to address this well-documented phenomenon.
“Until society decides that we’re going to deal with mental disorders in the same way that we deal with physical illnesses and injuries, we’re always going to have the problem of lack of investment and resources,” Stallones told me. “The most sparsely populated areas are the ones that are going to have the worst problems.”
Developed nations have an aging farmer population with not enough young people to replace them. Meanwhile, the global population is quickly growing, while our arable land faces more pressure. If we want to protect food production, we need to be taking seriously the significant health risks facing the people growing it. Despite knowing about these pressures for decades, little has been done outside of a few localized efforts to address the problems.
But there is good news. In her survey, Jones-Bitton said the majority of respondents indicated they’d be willing to seek mental health treatment, which she took as an encouraging sign of reduced stigma. The data from the survey is being analyzed and will be published within the year, but in the meantime, her new focus is on designing a program for mental health education in agriculture to try to push the destigmatization further and raise awareness.
This article first appreared on ‘Motherboard – Vice’ on 5 July 2016.