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Assessing Suicide Risks in Farmers

While financial experts say that the struggling farm economy of today is not a parallel to the farm crisis of the 1980s, the suicide rates show there is a cause for concern. Today’s suicide rates for male farmers are 50% higher than they were during the farm crisis.

In 1982, the suicide rate among male farmers peaked at 58 suicides per 100,000 farmers, according to data by the National Farm Medicine Center. The most recent suicide data available for farmers, collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012 and released in 2016, shows that suicide rates for workers in the farming, fishing, and forestry industries have risen to 90.5 per 100,000.

“Farmers are more isolated,” says Jami Dellifield, an Ohio State University Extension Educator. The CDC report also pointed to social isolation as well as the potential for financial losses, barriers to seeking mental health services, and access to lethal means as factors that might contribute to suicide.

Extension to the Rescue

While Extension may not be the first place you turn for mental health services, Dellifield says it is a natural fit to provide resources. “We are in all 50 states, in the majority of counties, and we work with everyone,” she explains. “Our job is to help people find researched based information to make their lives better.”

Dellifield’s background makes her distinctly qualified for this initiative. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology, is trained as a certified mental health first aid instructor, and says she has always had an interest in mental health and mental health awareness.

“I want to help people be the best they can be,” she says. “One in five American adults are diagnosed with a mental illness, and that doesn’t include those that don’t seek help. I want people to know there is help out there, and I want Extension professionals to lead people in the right direction to find help in their communities.”

In conjunction with the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development and Community Assessment and Education to Promote Behavioral Health Planning and Evaluation (CAPE), Ohio State University Extension is bringing community action planning and awareness about behavior health to rural communities.  

Other Extension offices are also working to provide more courses and resources on mental health. Michigan State University Extension is offering an online course for managing farm stress and has other resources available on this site.

How to Help

If you’re worried about a family member or friend who may have a mental health illness or be at risk for suicide or harm, Dellifield recommends following these steps.

  1. Track how long symptoms are lasting. “If you notice symptoms are continuing for more than 3 to 4 weeks, that’s when we say it’s more than just a mood swing,” says Dellifield. Symptoms can include sleeping more, anger, self-medicating, an increase in alcohol use, loss of appetite, and social withdraw.
  2. Bring in other people. “Ask others, ‘are you noticing this because I’m concerned,’” says Dellifield.
  3. Encourage interactions, whether those are family gatherings or attending church.

The mental health first aid program recommends these five steps – ALGEE – when addressing a loved one:

A. Assess for risk of suicide or harm. “Be bold and ask, ‘I notice you aren’t being yourself lately. Have you thought about killing yourself or harming yourself?’” advises Dellifield. “Sometimes that’s enough to shock people into realizing they haven’t been acting like themselves.”

L. Listen and listen nonjudgmentally.

G. Give information. “There are lots of wonderful websites and books you can give to someone,” says Dellifield.

E. Encourage appropriate professional help.

E. Encourage self-help.

Then, continue to be there for your loved ones and talk about what they are going through. “One of the hardest things is this is not a casserole disease. You find out that someone has been diagnosed with cancer and we rally around them,” explains Dellifield.

She has seen this happen first hand. Her husband is a stage four cancer survivor and their community was phenomenal she says in bringing meals, helping out, and taking him to doctor’s appointments. “I myself was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder 14 years ago and it’s interesting because very few people ask, ‘did you go to the doctor? What did they say? Are you taking your medication?” she shares.

“Friends and family should be encouraging,” she adds. Offer to bring your loved one to their appointments or take them out for coffee. “If it’s a financial worry, do something that doesn’t cost money. It doesn’t cost anything to be a good listener.”

One last bit of advice: Don’t tell someone to just snap out of it. “When you’re in it, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

Resources

There are a variety of resources available, depending on your need and preferred method.

  1. National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat on their website at Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
  2. Crisis Text Line. Text CONNECT to 741741.
  3. Calm Harm app. This walks you through the steps to reset and helps you breathe.
  4. Local health department. “Calling the nurses at your local health department is a great first step to anything you need,” says Dellifield.

When you’re looking up information online, make sure to focus on sites with .gov, .edu, or .extension so you know you are getting research based information, says Dellifield. “Without those words, you don’t know who decided to put that information out, and it could be harmful.

“Remember, there is hope. There are lots of individuals who are living with a mental illness,” encourages Dellifield. “You do not have to give up. Keep fighting, be open, be honest, and ask for help if you need it.”

Get more advice from Dellifield in the SF Podcast.

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