Farmer suicide crisis in American agriculture

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STRESS: Drugs, alcohol and suicides are contributing to an alarming drop in US life expectancy, particularly in rural communities. (Photo: Virginia Commonwealth University)

AMERICAN agriculture is facing a farmer suicide crisis and rural leaders are calling on the US government to act to fight the growing death toll.

The most heavily cited statistic is that farmers and ranchers have the highest rate of suicide of any occupational group.

That study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows the farming, fishing and forestry occupational group has a suicide rate of 84.5 per 100,000 people.

National Farmers Union (NFU) president Roger Johnson says many farmers and ranchers are coping with alarming levels of stress and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) should serve a critical role in providing them with support.

Johnson, representing more than 200,000 family farms and ranches, has written to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking him to address a crisis that sees farmers and ranchers committing suicide at a rate five times that of the general population.

“Farming is a high-stress occupation,” Johnson says in the letter. “Due to the prolonged downturn in the farm economy, many farmers are facing even greater stress.

“We urge you to leverage your vision for collaboration across USDA and the entire federal government to develop a response to the farm suicide crisis.”

The USDA predicts net farm income will fall 6.7 per cent to US$59.5 billion (£44.4 billion) this year, the lowest level since 2006. Cash receipts for all commodities are forecast to ease 0.5 per cent to $363.1 billion (£270.3 billion).

Johnson says financial risk, volatile markets, unpredictable weather, social isolation, and heavy workloads all place significant strain on rural mental and emotional well-being.

“This is exacerbated by the fact that 60 per cent of rural residents live in areas that suffer from mental health professional shortages,” he says.

The NFU wants the USDA to develop training materials to help its staff identify and respond to the signs of mental stress.

It proposes training, workshops and webinars on recognising the signs of mental stress as well as national, state and local conferences to assess the causes of rural mental health and to identify the best ways to respond.

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