Iowans take great pride that we are home to hardworking, dedicated farmers. However, national media attention has focused on mental health issues in agricultural work after two studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Iowa found that farmers take their lives at a rate higher than other occupations.
The study completed at the University of Iowa examined suicides and homicides among farmers during an eight-year period and found that 230 farmers died by suicide in that time. This was an annual suicide rate that ranged from 0.36 to 0.95 per 100,000 farmers. This rate may seem small, but was well above that of workers in all other occupational groups, which never exceeded 0.19.
This summer, the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health surveyed more than 300 farmers to identify the types of mental stressors farmers are facing. Topics like uncertain climate (drought in particular), Iowa grain prices, political conflict and aging were mentioned by several.
Farm families in Iowa are going through tough times. Our rural farm families may have difficulty accessing mental health care services. Unlike decades ago when harvest was a lively neighborhood activity, the current nature of fieldwork involves a lot of social isolation. This social isolation may make farmers feel like they are going through these tough times alone. So we asked farmers where they turned for help during stressful times. Several emphasized they relied on the support of their local Christian church community, the Bible and prayer. The local church can be a sanctuary for farm families — a place of constancy in the midst of change and chaos. Hearing the familiar and comfortable words of hymn and scripture brings a sense of belonging and acceptance. Fellowship is an important tool for combating feelings of social isolation. It is a way to connect to others through sharing stories of faith, grace and perseverance. Spiritual practices offer peace to external factors that cause farmers the most pain and anguish.
While most pastors and spiritual leaders are not mental health counselors, there are major benefits to being part of a spiritual community. What can clergy, churchgoers and neighbors do to combat isolation and help out fellow farmers?
First, understand and acknowledge signs of stress among those in your community. Examples may include a change in attendance patterns, uncharacteristically sitting alone or in the back, avoiding eye contact when speaking, and participating less in church activities.
Second, be willing to sit and listen so that others can openly share fears or worries without judgment. Offer words of hope that uphold and are realistic.
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Third, check in on someone you know — give a compliment, ask about family and bring over a meal one evening. Finally, if a person you know needs professional help, offer to go seek it with them. Resources have been compiled, which include crisis and suicide prevention hotline information for Iowans. This information is updated and is available online, at bit.ly/iafarmsmentalhealth.
If you want to be engaged in this topic, participate in the National Farm Safety and Health Week, which is focused on “Cultivating the Seeds of Safety.” Each day is dedicated to a particular farm health and safety topic. Tuesday will be dedicated to issues surrounding farmer mental health and suicide prevention. We invite you to join the conversation by following on Facebook and Twitter by following #USAgCenters #NECASAg #NFSHW and #farmersuicide.
Safety messages also will be shared at Sharon Center United Methodist Church in Kalona during its annual Blessing of the Tractors event at 4 p.m. Sept. 23. The event commemorates the harvest season.
• Jenna Gibbs is the coordinator of the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health at the University of Iowa School of Public Health. Erling Shultz is a licensed pastor and serves at Sharon Center United Methodist Church in Kalona. Views expressed are their own. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com