State of Mind: Farmers manage stress during harvest as suicides rise

State of Mind: MSU Extension program helps farmers manage stress as suicides rise. (WWMT/MGN Online)

Farmers said October can be the most difficult time, because of a disappointing harvest or more debt combined with depression that can leave farmers considering suicide.

Studies show that suicide is more common among farmers than any other job group and twice the rate of military veterans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate among workers ages 16-64 has jumped 34% from 12.9 suicides per 100,000 workers in 2000 to 17.3 per 100,000 workers in 2016. Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average, and could be higher because some farm suicides could be masked as farm-related accidents.

"This should be a happy time of year, we should be excited," Brigette Leach said.

Many struggle with issues out of their control and some don’t know where to turn for help. Leach, who helps the family run Avalon Farms in Climax, has seen the struggle first-hand.

"Sometimes as members of the agricultural community, we get to watch families spiral out of control and it’s horrible," Leach said.

Avalon Farms raise vegetable crops including hydroponic tomatoes, salad greens and herbs. During the harvest Leach brings her vegetable crops, but West Michigan farmers are struggling in 2019 due to higher amounts of rainfall. The rainfall problem is just the beginning.

"It's that constant pressure knowing you owe that much money and how are you going to make sure you can pay the bank back. At some point there’s a tipping point where you can’t cope anymore," Leach said.

Eric Karbowski, community behavioral health specialist at the Michigan State University Extension Office, said low farm prices, the prolonged recession in agriculture, flooding and tariffs imposed by the Trump Administration are all causing problems.

"There are so many different stressors involved with farming. They can’t control the weather, they can’t control the commodity prices, the ups and downs of dairy. I think all those things are compacting the issue and making it more prevalent," said Karbowski.

Since the launch in 2018, MSU Extension Farm Stress Management Program has reached more than 1,000 farmers, and those who care about them, around Michigan and beyond.

"If they feel isolated, if they have feelings of hopelessness. Those can contribute," Rinehart Institute Director Charlene Brown said.

The Rinehart Institute is a mental health wellness counseling practice in Kalamazoo.

Brown said several of her patients are farmers.

"People have stress. They don’t know how to manage those feelings and then they get into this cycle of trying to push away those thoughts, which just add to the stressors of being in the profession," Brown said.

Brown said farmers are often reluctant to ask for help.

"Because it’s really about a linage. It’s like this generation has built this linage and then with the stress that they are under. Not only are they letting themselves down, but this linage of their family name that they’re letting down," Brown said.

Leach said her family lineage keeps her from giving up on farming.

"I'd look at the numbers and wonder 'why are we doing this?' It’d be a lot easier if the family legacy wasn’t involved. I owe it to people who came before me and I owe it to the people who come after," Leach said.

People often don’t get the help they need simply because they don’t know where to begin. If you are dealing with thoughts of depression or anxiety you can talk with your primary care physician and ask about available mental health services.

The Michigan State University Farm Stress Management Program website has a list of resources and services available for farmers facing a crisis.

In Kalamazoo Gryphon Place offers several suicide prevention services and programs.

The local crisis line for someone contemplating suicide is 269-381-HELP (4357) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both lines are open 24/7.

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