How government and industry can help prevent farmer suicide

A well-known tongue-in-cheek clich? says: We're from the government and we're here to help. Federal, state and local governments certainly have obligations to prevent farmer suicide, for suicide contributes to more fatalities among farmers than p...


A well-known tongue-in-cheek cliché says: We're from the government and we're here to help. Federal, state and local governments certainly have obligations to prevent farmer suicide, for suicide contributes to more fatalities among farmers than physical health hazards. Furthermore, entities dependent on farmers share this responsibility.

Most everyone pays taxes to enable governments at all levels to carry out essential functions; protection of agricultural producers is one of the expectations of governments.

Farmers are the most important resource in the production of food and materials, yet, most governments spend far less on behavioral health than on other physical health and safety measures.

Corporate and private businesses that profit from farmers also have an obligation to help take care of the producers who supply their raw materials. Producers are the most important "infrastructure" of agriculture-dependent businesses.

A major problem is that there are too few culturally appropriate community, state, and federal behavioral health supports for farmers which help prevent the all-too-common occurrence of farmer suicide. This, the last article in a four-part series about farmer suicide, offers recommendations for governmental and privately supported resources that assist at-risk farmers and their families.


The Nebraska Rural Response Helpline (1-800-464-0258) is a laudatory example of both governmental and private underwriting of the operation of a particularly useful behavioral health program for farmers and all rural residents of Nebraska. The helpline depends on an annual statewide non-tithe church collection, grants from private organizations, and on the Nebraska Legislature to cover its costs.

All these entities pitch in to support the operation of the statewide telephone and website to offer crisis assistance to Nebraska's farm and rural populations, along with redeemable vouchers to obtain one or more counseling sessions from professionals who are familiar with agriculture.

Four other states besides Nebraska operate farmer-friendly behavioral health supports to callers:

• Iowa Concern (1-800-447-1985)

• New York FarmNet (1-800-547-3276)

• Wisconsin Farm Center (1-800-942-2474)

• Vermont Farm First (1-877-493-6216)

The Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services (1-866-367-3276) provides telephone and online behavioral health assistance for the residents of Manitoba. Moreover, the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, funded by their federal government, provides some types of psychological support services for Canadian farmers.


Great Britain, Australia, and possibly several other countries also provide behavioral health support services to their farm populations. Do these types of services help distressed farmers and curtail suicide?

Best practices that have been proven to reduce suicide among farmers include the Sowing the Seeds of Hope (SSOH) program involving seven states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin). These states formed a consortium to continue to initiate statewide farm crisis hotlines, to provide from one to five free counseling sessions for distressed farm people and their families, to offer culturally appropriate training to professional behavioral healthcare providers who assist the agricultural population, and to undertake marketing, community events, farmer retreats, and program evaluation.

AgriWellness, Inc., a nonprofit organization was formed a dozen years ago to administer the SSOH program. The SSOH was designated a best practice model in Rural Healthy People 2010: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2010, which selected the most useful programs in the past decade that were designed to help rural residents with behavioral health needs, and which had research validation of their benefits.

The National Rural Health Association chose the SSOH program for inclusion in their 2004 compendium of promising practices entitled Hope in the Face of Challenge. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services included the SSOH in Behavioral Health Programs and Promising Practices, published in 2011.

Governments at all levels, farming industries, corporations and organizations involved in agriculture can help prevent farmer suicide and support the emotional welfare of farmers and their families with but a fraction of their budgets.

In 2009, I estimated the federal cost at about $18 million to operate complete coverage of state and regional farm crisis telephone services to provide online counseling, referral, and culturally appropriate counseling, as well as marketing and administrative functions. Allowing for inflation since then, the federal cost now would be about $25 million, assuming states and other entities continue their present levels of support.

What are farmers' lives worth? Twenty-five million dollars is a small amount to invest in farmers' behavioral well being.

The U.S. is in a farm recession that is contributing to significant financial and emotional stress for many producers - some more than others. Reports indicate that suicide among farmers has increased, though not to levels during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.


Suicide by farmers isn't going to go away without effective interventions. Will elected government leaders and appointed administrative officials, farm industries, corporations that depend on agriculture, and organizations that represent these entities step up to address the unresolved problem of farmer suicide?

I thank the farm family who shared the loss of their father, the farmer who revealed his suicide ideation, and my wife Marilyn, for their help with this series.

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