Building a Conversation Around Rural Stress

A farmer driving a tractor over rolling fields of crops ready to harvest is an idyllic image associated with rural life.

In reality, farm life is often wrought with worry and financial stress due to a variety of factors from crop disease to drought to damaging storms. Factors like these contribute to the sobering fact that the suicide rate among farmers is the third highest of any vocational group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Since 1999, the suicide rate in America has gone up 30%. If that had been an increase in cardiovascular disease, we would have launched a nationwide campaign to find solutions,” said Sam Pardue, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, addressing 135 attendees at UGA’s first Rural Stress Summit in Atlanta in December. Organized by CAES, UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and School of Social Work, the event was tailored to state- and federally funded groups that serve rural Americans.

Ted Matthews, director of Minnesota Rural Mental Health, who has counseled rural Americans for the past two decades, also spoke.

“For farmers, farming is their way of life. Farming is what they do. They will keep doing it way past when they shouldn’t, but that is their way of thinking,” Matthews said. “We need to understand them in order to help them.” For every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts, he added.

“I want to talk about how we can get people to talk so that that suicide doesn’t happen,” Matthews said. “We can’t get fascinated with the whys and not move on to what we need to do."

In Minnesota, Matthews partners with sheriffs’ departments, social services, county Extension agents, the department of agriculture and others to reach those struggling with mental health issues. “We have to work together,” he said.

Karen Matthews, president and CEO of nonprofit organization Delta Health Alliance, said midlife “deaths of despair” — those caused by alcohol or drug abuse — are on the rise in the U.S.

“It’s a crisis in rural America and it’s not just happening in one place,” Matthews said.

Anna Scheyett, dean of the UGA School of Social Work, said the drivers for suicide are myriad. “It’s not linear; it’s a big web,” she said.

In Georgia, the next step will be to develop specific plans for how UGA can partner with stakeholders to support farmers and rural communities in Georgia. Videos of summit presentations are available at presentations.

By Sharon Dowdy Cruse

Illustration by Katie Walker
Composite Illustration by Katie Walker