In the last 12 months, Bob Worth has lost three Minnesota farming friends to suicide. Two of the men, aged 50 and 55, faced liquidation of their family farms. With the third, Worth said it was definitely not financial stress. He was “one of the best farmers in the area,” Worth said. “He just thought he was going downhill. As much help as he got, tried to get — medical help, psychological help — he just knew he was a failure.”
Worth, a farmer himself and mayor of Lake Benton, Minn., knew the men through his community and through his involvement with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.
Farmers and agricultural workers have the highest rate of suicide overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and research by faculty at the University of Iowa, which was published in the Journal of Rural Health. Psychologist Mike Rosmann, Ph.D., said suicide by male farmers is about 60 percent higher than among the overall male population.
What puts farmers at such a high risk for fatal self-harm? “Stresses can be multiplied so easily by financial stress,” Worth said. Financial stress can lead to marital stress which can be exacerbated by other, smaller stressors, Worth explained, that “just explode into a major stress that you can’t handle.”
Regarding farmer financial stress, 40 percent of bankers said loan defaults were expected to be the biggest challenges for them in 2018, while nearly one in 10 Midwestern bankers expected farm foreclosures to be the biggest challenge of the next five years. Those numbers come from the February 2018 and November 2017 Mainstreet Economy Reports published by Creighton University, Omaha.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture reports that 80 percent of those who work with farmers have seen farmers’ financial worries increase in 2017. MDA also released figures showing that median farm income has been negative for three years and is forecasted to be negative for 2017 and 2018.
Farmers are keeping their stresses to themselves and not talking to their lenders. “They have a relationship with their banker, but they don’t have a good relationship with their banker where they can sit and talk,” Worth said.
Worth considers himself fortunate he’s had the same banker since 1987. “My banker got me through the ’80s. I respect him, I trust him, I talk to him about things I don’t even need to borrow money for.”
Social interaction is critical to maintaining mental health. Worth said he turns to his banker for all types of advice. “That’s what you need, that kind of relationship to get through,” he said.
It is that kind of relationship that MDA is also working to build on through its “Down on the Farm” workshops, designed to give people who work with farmers the help they need to “recognize and respond” when they see farmers dealing with stress, anxiety and depression.
Down on the Farm organizers aim to ensure professionals who work with farmers are “prepared to assist when farmers come through their door,” said Dave Frederickson, MDA commissioner. “The ultimate goal is to provide the resources for farm families who are struggling, whether it be financial or mental health issues, or any of the above.
MDA scheduled six Down on the Farm workshops in the first quarter. “We had no idea how this was going to play out,” said Ted Matthews, a psychologist who works with the MDA. For most of the sessions there was a waiting list, and the final tally of those who attended was around 500 people. At the sessions, networking with mental health professionals allowed attendees to know who to contact should they encounter a farmer who needs help.
“Doing nothing can put a person in harm’s way,” Matthews said. Few are harmed by reaching out to a person who is not suicidal, Matthews explained. Yet, the emotional penalty for knowing something but doing nothing is high.
MDA launched a farm and rural helpline for mental health. “We react to the times, and right now, farmers are struggling. So it’s important to have these programs in place right now,” Frederickson said.
MDA’s Meg Moynihan said the Department’s goals were two-fold: It wants to improve farmer quality of life and increase the chance that the farm itself endures.
Rosmann, an expert in agricultural behavioral health who has been working with farmers for four decades and is himself a farmer, further explains why the stresses dealing with land can put farmers over the edge. He calls it the Agrarian Imperative Theory: “Humans have an innate drive to produce substances that we need to live, like food, and fibers … we strive to be successful in producing these essentials for life. When our occupation is threatened, especially economically, and we might lose the land or lose our herd or livestock, we tend to blame ourselves.”
Losing a farm that has been passed down for generations is a hard burden for farmers to carry, Rosmann said. “The urge to acquire land and to protect it has always been strong in humans. We’ve fought many wars over it,” he explained.
Darla Tyler-McSherry, the director of student health services at Montana State University in Billings, Mont., had never heard of Rosmann’s Agrarian Imperative until after her father’s death. Dick Tyler, who was born on the farm in 1934, died on the farm in September, 2016. “My dad took his own life,” she said. “Every year since he was 11, he had helped with harvest. In 2016, for the first time in 71 years, his health required him to sit the harvest out.
“Like so many farmers and ranchers, he was so proud of his independence, proud of his ability to be in charge, handle everything. I think looking down the road and the fear of not being in control…was something he wasn’t willing to endure,” she said.
Rosmann’s theory of having such a significant tie to the land “speaks to my dad’s situation,” she said. “We knew it was tough on him but had no idea the extent as to how damaging it was.”
The CDC points to additional factors that can contribute to surging farmer suicide rates: social isolation, and either a barrier to, or an unwillingness to, seek mental health services. But folks like Worth, Rosmann, Matthews and Tyler-McSherry are working to have more conversations on mental and behavioral health.
“Since my dad’s death, I’ve started to learn more and more about farming and suicide,” said Tyler-McSherry, who has been working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to get educational materials distributed to farmers at events like rodeos. It feels like the farming community is “on the cusp of making some incredible gains because of the conversations we’re having on mental health,” she said.
“I just want farmers to start opening up,” Worth said. There’s nothing sadder than that kind of funeral, he said. “People have to realize they’re not alone.”