By Matt Perdue, NFU Government Relations Representative

Those of us who work with farmers on a daily basis know that mental and behavioral health is a major concern in farming communities. Over the past couple years, as family farmers’ and ranchers’ typical stresses have been compounded by the state of the farm economy, the issue has come to the forefront for National Farmers Union (NFU). All available research backs these concerns and reinforces the need to improve access to mental health services in rural areas.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study suggesting that those in farming, fishing and forestry occupations experienced a rate of suicide that was nearly five times that of the general population. That statistic was widely cited, including by NFU, and tracked with previous research: a University of Iowa study indicated that between 1992 and 2010, farmers and ranchers had a rate of suicide that was, on average, 3.5 times that of the general population.

The 2016 CDC study was retracted in June because of coding errors for certain occupational groups. Earlier this month, it was replaced with new information that, at first glance, seems to dispute the claim that farmers and ranchers have an unusually high suicide rate. In fact, the “Farming, Fishing and Forestry” (or “Triple-F”) ranked only eighth and ninth among major occupational groups, with a suicide rate on par with the overall average. However, a closer look reveals that the suicide rate for male “Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers” (a subgroup of the “Management” major group) was double that of the general population in 2012.

The data has created some confusion, particularly regarding the composition of each major occupational group and the population for the study. The CDC acknowledges several limitations for the study; for instance, the data only provide a snapshot for the years 2012 and 2015 and is limited to the 17 states that participated in the National Violent Death Reporting System in both years. Those 17 states represent about one fourth of our nation’s farms.

Another challenge in interpreting the study is that the “Triple-F” major occupational group includes agricultural workers but doesn’t include self-employed farmers and ranchers or agricultural managers. Farmers and ranchers are actually included in the “Management” major group, along with chief executives, elementary principals, and managers from a wide variety of other fields. If farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers were given their own major group, they’d rank first and third in suicides in 2012 and 2015, respectively, while the “Management” major group ranks 17th and 15th.

The reality is that there’s no perfect source of information about the high levels of stress in the farming community. Suicide rates represent the most dreaded outcome but fall well short of painting a complete picture of behavioral health among farmers and farmworkers. Statistics simply can’t be used to provide a comprehensive view of an issue as complex and deeply personal as one’s mental well-being. Instead, they’re used to supplement the narratives of our members and to more concisely quantify and illustrate their concerns.

We’ve made a great deal of progress in providing farming communities with the services they need in times of stress. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) is on the verge of being resurrected in the new farm bill, thanks to a bipartisan effort led by Congressman Emmer and Senator Baldwin. But much work remains, particularly in identifying funding sources for behavioral health services. These efforts will continue to be supported by the available data and driven by the voices of the American farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers.

National Farmers Union encourages farmers in personal financial stress to visit to find out what resources are available to them. Visitors to the website also have the ability to advocate for FRSAN by selecting “Take Action.”

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