Suicide rates show more Colorado farmers losing hope
The Denver Post
Denver, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado – The phone calls usually come in the evening after the machinery goes silent on farms across the country. The callers speak of dwindling cash flows, crumbling marriages. Some admit they’re holding a loaded gun.
Across a wide swath of rural America, increasing numbers of farmers are considering taking their lives.
The nation’s largest network of crisis hotlines for agricultural workers reports a spike of 2,000 calls through May compared with the same period last year – a 20 percent increase.
In Colorado, the number of suicides among farmers and ranchers has risen in the past five years: Fourteen took their lives in 2008, twice the number reported by the state’s coroners in 2004.
“The increase in calls really started with the change in dairy prices, as they fell last fall,” said Mike Rosmann, a clinical psychologist and farmer who heads the Iowa-based Sowing the Seeds of Hope help line serving farmers in seven Midwestern states. “We’re starting to see the stress mount. It’s a nationwide problem.”
In the past year, economics and inclement weather have crippled operations, pushing countless farmers to the emotional breaking point, say industry experts.
Closer to home, the collapse of the state’s largest agricultural lender, New Frontier Bank of Greeley, has further exposed personal plights. Farmers on the edge of bankruptcy have tearfully pleaded for help from government leaders in recent public meetings.
“Watching your livelihood and your inner being being threatened is the toughest thing in the world,” said Bob Winter, a retired Weld County sugar-beet farmer of 35 years. “We plant our crops thinking things will work out, but other things through no control of our own hang over our heads. You can’t help but stew if it’s your own nickel in trouble. You stew an awful lot.”
Winter’s faith buoyed him. Others aren’t so lucky.
Last spring, a Morgan County farmer turned to alcohol and then his gun, fatally, after a banker warned him to make his payments or face “being cut off,” said Miranda Miller, program director for the Colorado nonprofit Rural Solutions, which provides suicide-prevention programs.
“Farming was all he knew, but he felt like he was a burden,” Miller said. “Many people in rural communities don’t view mental-health illnesses the same way they do diabetes or high blood pressure. But they must be dealt with.”
Whatever drives farmers to despair, industry leaders and social workers are sounding the alarm. They know that numerous studies show higher rates of suicide and depression in rural America. They know that spring is a time when many farmers feel most vulnerable. And counseling resources and health-insurance coverage in rural regions lag far behind urban centers.
The National Farmers Union and others are lobbying federal officials hard to provide funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, adopted by Congress last year, mandating a national hotline network for farmers as well as other behavioral-health services for rural America.
“It’s important that farmers realize there is help and resources available,” said Bob Fetsch, an agriculture extension specialist at Colorado State University who often refers people to 1-800-SUICIDE.
Nationally, the statistical picture on farmer suicide rates is fuzzy.
Only 17 states report occupational suicide numbers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and trends from recent years have yet to be analyzed.
That leaves only a patchwork of information to provide insights.
One indicator: The Sowing the Seeds of Hope crisis-line program, based in Iowa, has fielded about 11,000 calls so far this year, compared with 9,000 through May 2008.
It coordinates a network of call lines throughout seven farm-belt states – Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Kansas. The system also fields calls from Colorado and other states, evidently because farmers feel more comfortable seeking guidance from friends in the agriculture world.
The greatest surge in that hotline’s call traffic? From operators of dairy and hog farms, two of the hardest-hit agriculture industries nationally. Pleas from those operators have jumped 40 percent.
“Our best approach is to commend people when they call about being able to reach out,” Rosmann said. “It’s mainly depression they’re dealing with.”
In Colorado, state health officials have documented 4,012 suicides in the past five years. Fifty-three were farmers, the vast majority men. Most used guns.
State officials say comparative figures for other occupations is not yet available. But a preliminary look shows construction is the industry with the highest number of suicides in that time span.
On the Net:
Sowing the Seeds of Hope: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/seedsofhope.html
Rural Solutions: http://www.rural-solutions.org/
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Are we seeing more bears because there are more bears on the valley floor, or because we’re all spending more time at home? It could be a bit of both.