There is no question that farming is one of the toughest industries to work in. The fact that farming is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week commitment – usually working alone and in all sorts of weather – can easily trigger feelings of stress and depression. The comparative isolation of rural life means it is far from easy to find a neighbour or friend to chat with and, when taken all these elements are taken together, it is not difficult to see why farming is one of the highest professions for suicide.
Working in agriculture can be extremely stressful. As well, working with heavy machinery means that not only is the work hard labor, it is also dangerous. There were 216 farm accident fatalities in 2012 alone, prompting Forbes magazine to rank farming as one of the nation’s deadliest jobs. Beyond the stress of farming and the workplace hazards, a farmer is also at the mercy of nature. And nature can be cruel. When the earth doesn’t cooperate, then a farmer’s livelihood can be completely in jeopardy, resulting in a suicide rate that is 1.32 higher than average.
In the U.S. the rate of farmer suicides is just under two times that of the general population. In the U.K. one farmer a week commits suicide. In China, farmers are killing themselves daily to protest the government taking over their prime agricultural lands for urbanization. In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. Australia reports one farmer suicides every four days. India yearly reports more than 17,627 farmer suicides. — Newsweek 2014
As I child growing up on a dairy farm, I was raised in a very protected loving environment. But I was also raised with a strong belief system. One such belief was that it was a sign of weakness to have a mental health issue. When I played sports this belief system was further engrained into me. I was a member of such a small community that the saying that everyone knows everything about each other is true. Going to a mental health professional or admitting you are depressed would quickly become news. To the point where we would look down on those who had “mental issues”. I never wanted to admit my own weaknesses, as I thought it would make me a “lesser” person. Then I met my now wife, who was a student in medical school, training to ultimately become a physiatrist. She really opened my eyes to the fact that mental health was not just for the weak, but it can affect everyone. (Read more: HOW I USED EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT ANIMAL BREEDING TO CHOOSE MY WIFE)
Stigma and lack of education about depression are the main culprits of farmer suicides. It was certainly the case for me. Like most farmers I tended to adhere to the stereotypical image of the self-reliant, tough farmer who doesn’t complain. I believed that a farmer who complains of being depressed would be labelled crazy, whiner or wimp by fellow farmers. This is probably why instead of talking about their depression, most farmers might say, “I’m just tired, worn out.” Ignoring or hiding depression is not the way to deal with depression.
So how can we help farmers reduce their rate of suicide?
In the U.K. the charity organization YANA (You Are Not Alone) works to help depressed farmers. They have GPs, counsellors and people who know what it’s like to farm. The Farming Community Network (U.K.) also helps farmers and their families. From 1999 to 2010, the United States federal office of Rural Health Policy funded Sowing the Seeds of Hope, a network of phone hotlines for rural communities. The project was shut down due to lack of funding. NY FarmNet has since filled the void left by Sowing the Seeds of Hope.
The other and most important part of dealing with depression is talk. Talking about depression is key to understanding and healing yourself. Talk removes or smashes apart stigma and brings new ideas, proper advice and sources of help. Talking about depression in farming at agricultural shows and events also helps. We know depression affects farmers. Bring the issue into the public as a workplace health concern that is talked about at these venues. The old saying, “The more you know…” goes a long way in dealing with depression.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or when you have a problem. We all like to think we can just handle it and bury our nose in our work. Add to that the limited isolation that comes with being a farmer and it starts to make a lot of sense why farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of all professions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many productive ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Life doesn’t have to be a constant grind, where you think about ending it all. You just need to ask for help and talk.