In our minds, farmers are strong and resilient, the personification of the can-do American spirit, working long, hard, solitary days, ready to overcome any obstacle and persevere the most trying of times. There is great truth in this image, yet it also directly identifies the roots of a silent crisis. The struggle and solitude are factors contributing to farming having the highest suicide rate of any occupation in America.
The suicide rate for farmers is more than double that of veterans and over ten times higher than office workers, according to the CDC. Victims are also almost exclusively male. The causes are numerous and poorly understood, but experts believe the unpredictability of farming, potential for major financial losses, unwillingness to seek help and social isolation are major factors. Making the problem even more critical, 74% of farmers and farmworkers say they have been directly impacted by the current opioid epidemic, which has been directly linked to increased risk of depression and suicide.
We can’t make farming more predictable, and crop and livestock prices have been in the basement for going on five years with few signs of a turnaround on the horizon. Net farm income is predicted to hit a 12-year low this year. For those struggling with addiction, only two in five farmers are confident that they could seek care for opioid addictions that is effective, covered by insurance, convenient or affordable. These realities make it that much more important to take action where we can. If struggling farmers are unwilling to seek help and are socially isolated, we can all do something to help.
In rural Missouri we pride ourselves on our sense of community. Each of us can decide to make a friend. Find a farmer who may not be well-connected to others and invite them over for dinner. Ask them what they grow or raise. Find out what the hardest parts of their job are. Simply having an ear to bend can make a huge difference in the life of someone who is struggling.
My uncle raised hogs and row crops for 60-plus years in east-central Missouri. About 20 years ago he and my aunt joined a group of three other couples who would rotate homes for a monthly dinner. Their “Dinner for Eight” club only required each couple to cook three meals a year, but it gave them a sense of belonging. It doesn’t solve everything, but simple friendly interactions like this can help a farmer no longer feel alone in the world. All it takes is about five minutes of brainstorming for names and a couple of phone calls to neighbors.
If you know of someone struggling, reach out and talk to them. Make a friend. Invite them over. If they need more immediate help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. Unfortunately, this is not a battle that will ever be completely won, but we have to fight it every day. Don’t miss your chance to help your neighbors. You could be exactly what they need.