IOWA CITY — The suicide rate for agriculture workers is higher than the suicide rate in all other occupations, a University of Iowa College of Public Health study found.
Wendy Ringgenberg, whose family has a century farm near Belle Plaine, began the study in 2013 as part of her thesis for her master’s degree in occupational and environmental health.
She said she set out to find the trends of intentional harm among agricultural workers.
Existing studies show occupational injuries and fatalities in other industries, but not for agricultural workers, said Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health at the UI College of Public Health.
“I know there are farmers that do commit suicide, yet they’re not categorized as occupational-risk suicide because of where they were located or because it’s such a taboo subject,” Ringgenberg said. “On the flip side, we have farmers and ag workers who were victims of homicide based on their choice of occupation.”
For their study, Ringgenberg and Peek-Asa obtained data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries for suicide and homicides for agricultural workers from 1992 through 2010. Ringgenberg’s study was published this spring in The Journal of Rural Health.
In those 19 years, 230 farm operators or workers died of suicide, and 171 died in homicides. That’s out of the 1.2 million farm operators and 758,000 farm laborers across the nation, according to the study.
The researchers found the suicide rate for farmers ranged between 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.95 per 100,000. The national suicide rate for all occupations did not rise above 0.19 per 100,000 for the same time period.
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That means the overall rate of suicide in ag occupations was approximately two to five times higher than the national rate for other occupations.
“What we thought was so interesting about the suicide rate was that the rate we calculated was higher every single year of the study,” said Ringgenberg, who now teaches at Des Moines University. “It never once dipped down below what all other occupations had experienced.”
The question, Peek-Asa said, is whether the occupation itself could tie into the suicide rate of farmers.
“Problems you have in the workplace that are very difficult to solve on your own are things that contribute greatly to stress,” Peek-Asa said. “That alone is not going to cause someone to commit suicide, but it’s exacerbated by issues that can put someone on that trajectory. ... Farmers have very isolated jobs, and things like the weather and the finance market and things that are a little bit beyond their control can play in.”
Many ag workers work alone or with only a small number of others, so problems typically fall on only a few shoulders, Ringgenberg said. Seasonal flooding or drought, issues with insurance, isolation in rural areas, injuries or disabilities are stressors that could affect farmers’ mental health, Ringgenberg said.
“Previous research has really shown isolation and access to mental health resources and identification of mental health issues can play a role,” she said.
“(Also), if someone stops being a farmer, can they manage transferring into a different identity?” she said. “Mental health services could help identify that it’s OK to feel that way, and let’s get you some help so you can identify what your identity could be.”
Though homicide rates for farmers were generally lower than the national rate for all occupations, some regional differences existed, Ringgenberg said.
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The south and west regions of America had the highest rates of homicides for agriculture workers, which could point to cultural norms in those areas, according to the study.
However, it is clear through homicide case studies that victims were chosen because of their vulnerability — being in isolated locations or being immigrants, Ringgenberg said.
Ringgenberg and Peek-Asa said they hope the study helps farmers and policy makers realize the potential occupational risks farmers face.
And while access to mental health services may be lacking in rural areas, there needs to be a cultural shift in seeking mental health services for ag workers, Peek-Asa said.
“We should be able to get over the notion that if you need help, there is some identity issue that would keep you from getting that, she said. “It’s not unmanly to have a hard time and need to reach out.”
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