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What's Behind U.S. Farmer Suicide?

Stephen D

An alarming number of farmers in the U.S. take their own lives, according to the magazine Newsweek. And while we don’t have great statistics, some of the best numbers available suggest men on the farm today kill themselves nearly twice as often as other men in the general population.

The numbers are the jumping off point for Max Kutner, who wrote the Newsweek cover story, “Death on the farm.”

“Farmers are a dying breed, in part because they’re killing themselves in record numbers,” the Newsweek cover proclaims.

While that’s strong rhetoric, studies show that suicides are much more likely in rural areas. A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that men living in rural counties were much more likely to kill themselves than urban men. And Michael Rosmann, a farmer and a psychologist who works with farmers, says surveys suggest an increased risk of suicide for farmers (PDF), in particular.

The Centers for Disease Control keep lots of data on suicide trends in the U.S. and the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of fatal occupational injuries. But the two data sets are not often put together. It’s not very easy to find consistent data on the number of suicides within any particular job. As a result, suicide and occupation can be difficult to link.

Other countries have been able to glean more specific statistics on the issue. A recent French study boldly concludes that every two days a French farmer commits suicide. From 2001-2011, 17,000 farmers committed suicide in India.

In Newsweek, Kutner said the number of suicides in the U.S. is almost certainly lower than during the farm crisis of the 1980s when he said male farmers were estimated to have taken their own lives at four times the rate of other men. Still, it’s a surprising trend that some rural residents hadn’t even considered until they stopped to consider Max’s questions on the topic.

“A lot of farmers I was speaking with would say to me, ‘Max, I didn’t know this was a trend, but come to think of it I know three farmers who died in the past couple of years by their own hand,’” Kutner told me from his home on Long Island.

The reasons are mixed and vary by individual. But Kutner says there are some common circumstances. Farmers, by nature of their work, are isolated. They likely don’t have good access to mental health care, but they probably do have access to a gun. They may be under enormous pressure to carry on the family tradition on the farm. Add in family discord or financial stress and the risks are clear.

Kutner described the story of New York dairy farmer, Dean Pierson, who shot himself in 2010. Pierson ran the farm that his father and grandfather had built, but after renovating and updating the farm to make it more competitive, the market for milk collapsed. Before he took his own life, friends told Kutner Pierson had become withdrawn.

“(Pierson) had a hard life,” Kutner said. “He was dealing with some personal issues. Most people if they’re having problems back at home they can go to work. He’s just going across the street to his farm, spending all day, working very hard, not talking to anyone, and then not making any money for it.”

Few of the suicide prevention efforts that were started during the ‘80s farm crisis remain in place today. A few states still have hotlines for farmers, such as NY FarmNet and the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, which offer financial advice and personal counseling.

Kutner says supporters failed to get new funding they were hoping for in the recently passed farm bill.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.
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