Why are American farmers still committing suicide at high rates?

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Decades after the farm crisis in the United States, which saw widespread farm foreclosures and failures throughout the country in the 1980s, farmers are still committing suicide at higher rates than other American workers. Why?

A new study researched at the University of Iowa sheds some light on this puzzling and disturbing trend.

Sun setting over a farm
A recent study looks into the troubling discovery that farmers are still committing suicide at high rates, decades after the farm crisis that devastated families across the US in the 1980s. (Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash)

The study examines homicides and suicides among agricultural workers and farmers throughout the United States between 1992 and 2010. During this period, the researchers found 230 farmers took their own lives, creating an annual suicide rate of 0.36 to 0.95 per 100,000 each year. Those rates are far above the 0.19 per 100,000 rate in all other job sectors during the same time period.

In the 1980s,  more than 1,000 farmers took their own lives as farm foreclosures spiked.

The study found several risk factors that lead to farmer suicides, including physical isolation and lack of health care resources in rural areas — especially for mental health issues, financial strain, and what researchers have called “farm culture.”

“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers. They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out,” says study co-author Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental in a university release. “Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”

The research also suggests that exposure to chemicals from pesticides may negatively impact the mental health of farm workers, and that easy access to firearms may raise the likelihood of a gun being turned on oneself.

For farmers, according to Peek-Asa and her team, their work is a large part of their identities. So when things don’t go well, they see it as personal failure instead of separating it into professional obstacles or accepting difficulty. The typical credo for farm life suggests that when the going gets tough for workers, they simply “suck it up” and push through the pain.

Peek-Asa hopes that future policies provide farm workers greater access to health care, stronger mental health resources, more social networks, and of course, an improved economy for communities in rural regions.

The full study was published in the Journal of Rural Health.

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Ben Renner

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