The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report July 7 that indicated the suicide rate among people engaged in agriculture (farmers, ranchers, farm laborers, fishers and lumber harvesters) was the highest among 30 national Standard Occupational Classification groups, at 84.5 per 100,000 persons in 2012.
The study examined 12,312 deaths in 17 states during 2012 that were recorded by the National Violent Death Reporting System as suicides.
The CDC data indicate the next highest occupational rates were among construction and extraction workers (53.3) and installation, maintenance and repair occupations (47.9).
The lowest suicide rate was among those categorized as educators, trainers and librarians (7.5 per 100,000 persons).
Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death among all people in the U.S. in 2012 and has retained that same ranking for several years.
According to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), which monitors suicide rates and such demographic characteristics as gender and age — but not occupation — the rate of suicide for all U.S. residents in 2012 was 12.9 per 100,000 persons. The AAS data include all 50 states.
By the numbers
The age of the deceased people included in the CDC report varied from 16 to 102 years. People aged 45-54 years had the highest rate of suicide (22.7) and those aged 16-24 had the lowest rate (11.6). Among those who took their own lives, 77.2 percent were males and 22.8 percent were females.
A July 15 Newsweek Magazine article (www.newsweek.com/farmer-suicide-rate-higher-veterans-479823) compared suicides by people engaged in agriculture in the 2012 CDC study with suicides by military veterans in 2014.
Using the same data source and research methodology similar to the CDC study, the rate of suicide by all veterans in 2014 was reported as 35.3 per 100,000 persons, well below the rate of 84.5 per 100,000 persons pertaining to people engaged in agriculture.
The highest veteran suicide rate in any category, according to the Newsweek article, was 85.6 per 100,000 male veterans aged 18-29 in 2014, which compares to 90.5 per 100,000 agricultural males of all ages in the 2012 CDC study. Females who are veterans had an overall suicide rate of 32.7 per 100,000 persons.
Historically, females overall have been about 25 percent as likely as males to take their own lives. The occupation — other than veterans — in which females in the CDC study were most likely to undertake suicide was in protective services such as law enforcement and fire-fighting.
Most public health studies, such as a 2002 article by Gopal Singh and Mohammad Siahpush in the American Journal of Public Health, indicate a suicide rate among males that is about 60 percent higher for people living in the most rural areas of the country — where most farming, ranching, forestry and fishing take place — than in the most urban areas of the country.
Public health data are usually from the National Center for Health Statistics, and generally entail different collection methods than were used in the recent study reported by the CDC.
Many public health reports, like that of Singh and Siahpush, pertain to the entire U.S., whereas the CDC report does not include all the states; several highly agricultural states, such as California, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, were not sampled.
Several states with known high rates of suicide also were not sampled, such as Wyoming, Montana and Nevada.
Explanations and solutions
Despite different research methodologies, the pattern of results is the same: Males involved in agriculture are more likely than any other group to undertake suicide as a cause of death. What explains this?
The Newsweek article offered an explanation.
“In the U.S., farming and mental health experts trace the issue back to the 1980s American farm crisis, when an economic downturn put many farmers into debt. … Those experts named several reasons why farmers are killing themselves at such high rates: Many are reluctant to seek help; farmers tend to own guns; farms are often far from mental health care centers and professionals; the cost of land, equipment and livestock feed has gone up; and pesticide exposure can cause depression, according to studies.”
Moreover, efforts to develop federally funded behavioral health supports for farmers, like those for veterans, have failed.
A program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which would have created a national hotline for farmers as well as state and regional helplines and counseling services, was approved as part of the 2008 farm bill but never received funding.
It was estimated in 2009 that the FRSAN would cost about $18 million annually.
The loss of farmer lives through self-imposed methods each year is much greater economically than $18 million, and the emotional toll on their families and communities is untold.
Congressional partisanship contributed to the failure to appropriate funds in 2009 and thereafter. Thus far, private foundations and funders, advocacy organizations and agricultural corporations have not stepped forward.
Surely we can do better.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a farmer/psychologist who resides near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.