The Commission of Farmers and the Toll it has Taken

It is December, and the onset of winter has come before us.  Usually, crops are in, farm equipment has been put away, and farmers can finally sit back and chalk it up to another year. Yet, Mother Nature has the final call – farmers see in plain sight the fear of freezing temperatures or accumulated snow in their fields.  Harvesting is a month behind already, and farmers hope and pray that their corn will soon dry sufficiently without the leering risks of foreseen elevated costs and a disappointing bottom line.

Yes, farmers either know the hazards before they take on the lifestyle, or learn all about it by living in its trenches.   Each farmer is called to determine their own risk level and their ability to manage the rollercoaster of the occupation.  There are blessings and risks abound, and the lifestyle is likely one of the primary motives to keep on keeping on.

So, why is the suicide rate among farmers more than double that of veterans and 5 times higher compared to that of the general population, reported by the 2018 Center for Disease Control (CDC).   Why is depression and anxiety rampant among this group? 

For farmers, their work is who they are, and oftentimes considered their life purpose.  To change careers is way beyond consideration as farming is a way of life.  Most difficulties are beyond the control of farmers.  Some of the challenges faced by farmers and those living in rural and remote communities include dealing with fluctuating crop and input prices, shifting interest rates on land and loans, weather changes, current politics around tariffs, trade and the farm bill, and difficulty accessing services. 

Primarily, the culture of farming takes on a number of principles that may also lead one towards increased mental health struggles or suicide. 

  1. Overall, farmers do their work alone, and they suffer with depression and anxiety alone.  Seeking help or talking to friends about their struggles goes straight against privacy and independence. A typical phrase in farm communities include; “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public”.  They simply “suck it up” and push through the emotional pain.  It is part of the culture.  It is part of that independence. 
  2. Unfortunately, the farming culture views their high rates of anxiety and depression as weaknesses, and not common conditions.  The perception of personal failure when things don’t go right feeds into the need to do it all; work harder, work longer, breathe endurance.  It’s like the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

With all this, farming does have its mental health vulnerabilities.  Suicide is an isolated decision; and with the forced winds of today’s obstacles, a culture of independence, isolation and privacy, an erroneous belief that mental health issues are not for the strong, and self-identification is determined by their success or failure, “checking in” with them once in a while could save a life.

Claudia A. Liljegren, LICSW