Congress was warned of farmer suicides

Americans are waking up to a new reality, one in which farmers are killing themselves in record numbers.

Residents also should know that members of Congress have been aware, but have refused to provide help.

study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found people working in agriculture — farmers, laborers, ranchers, fishers and other harvesters — take their own lives at a rate higher than any other occupation. Data suggests that suicide rates for agricultural workers in 17 states is nearly five times higher than the general population.

In some states, according to Newsweek, the suicide rate for farmers is greater than for military veterans. And, when compared to studies from the 1980s farm crisis, which captured suicide rate peaks in 1982 at 58 for every 100,000 farmers and ranchers, current CDC statistics are especially troubling because the rate has doubled from that most volatile time for farmers in recent history. National suicide rates for ag workers are 84.5 per 100,000 overall, and 90.5 per 100,000 among men. Given that many rural suicides are purposefully disguised as accidents, the rate is likely much higher.

A recent news report published by The Guardian in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project highlighted the problem further and, likely because an Iowan who has long fought for answers to behavioral health issues in agriculture was featured, it appeared in many local social media feeds.

Suicide Farmer Suicides - An abandoned farmhouse sits on a hillside in rural Iowa County.
An abandoned farmhouse sits on a hillside in rural Iowa County. (Gazette Archives)

With suicide rates in agriculture now higher than during the farm crisis, when such deaths were highly publicized, you may wonder how this happened. How did we get to this point?

From my perspective, it has a lot to do with politics and the polarization of public policy.

A decade ago I was reporting on several aspects of health care in rural America. It was during debate of the Affordable Care Act, and my job was to see if handing rural residents an insurance card would result in access to health care. Nowhere were disparities between rural and urban more apparent than in behavioral health services, which led me to behavioral health conferences and discussions throughout the Midwest.

I ultimately became part of a group that advocated for a new program within the 2008 Farm Bill called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. Congress saw the need for this type of service, which would offer accessible behavioral health services to agricultural workers, provided by people who understood both health risks and agricultural life. FRSAN was created, but never funded.

The cost to develop a federally funded support for farmers, similar to what has been established for veterans, was considered too high. The FRSAN federal hotline and its regional networks would have cost about $18 million a year, which was and is less than a fraction of 1 percent of total Farm Bill expenditures.

The value of such hotlines was proved during the farm crisis. States, like Iowa, that instituted programs saw suicide rates decline.

Congress already has a reliable tool in its toolbox. Federal officials need to provide funding so it can be used.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 20, 2017. Photo credit: Gazette Archives