Congress Never Funded Program to Prevent Farmer Suicides. Now It’s an Epidemic.

With farmers’ suicide rates higher than some veterans, rural advocates are pushing Congress to fund mental health care supports for agricultural producers.

A farmer in West Texas.
A farmer in West Texas. Courtesy/Flickr, USDA NRCS Texas

After Judith McGeary discovered that several dozen sheep had been slaughtered by a mountain lion on her 160-acre ranch near Waco in 2015, she unexpectedly found herself struggling with depression. Every one of the sheep had been born at McGeary Family Farm — some she’d helped deliver herself.

“When you lose animals, you deal with a dual loss. It imperils the financial viability of the farm, but you also deal with a very heavy emotional loss,” she said. Though McGeary is still recovering financially from the deaths, she’s moved on mentally. Some ranchers aren’t so quick to bounce back, especially if they’ve been continuously walloped by storms, drought, sick animals and down markets. Sometimes they feel their only choice is to take their own life.

In rural Texas, access to health care, including mental health care, is abysmal. In the state’s nearly 200 rural counties, there are only 1.8 psychiatrists per 100,000 residents, about half of the national rural average of 3.4 and a fraction of the 8.4 in large metros. Rural Texans on average have a much higher rate of suicide than folks in metro areas, and a 2016 analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who work in the farming, forestry and fishing industries are seven times more likely to kill themselves than the general population.

Those workers were more than twice as likely as veterans to take their own lives in 2014. Further, suicides on the farm are sometimes disguised or reported as accidents, making the number potentially appear artificially low.

A decade ago, farm advocates had reason to believe the situation could be improved, at least marginally. The congressional writers of the 2008 Farm Bill, an omnibus proposal that funds the country’s nutrition and agriculture programs, included a provision to enact the so-called Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which would have created outreach services, support groups and hotlines in rural counties. The idea was this: If farmers couldn’t find a nearby mental health professional, they could turn to the network, which would hook them up with the help they needed.

It turns out this was all political grandstanding — Congress never funded the network, and the provision that created it expired in 2014, when lawmakers opted not to include it in that year’s Farm Bill.

The good news for rural advocates is that the 2018 Farm Bill draft reauthorized the program,  but the National Farmers Union, along with 36 other organizations, are pushing for the network to be funded. In an April 6 letter sent to Senate and House agriculture committee members (Midland Republican Mike Conaway chairs the House Committee and two others members call Texas home), the groups urged Congress to appropriate money to the network, noting that a steady drop in commodity prices and a predicted increase in bankruptcies could foretell more farmer suicides. Though the discretionary program has been included in this Farm Bill’s text, it’ll be months before Congressional appropriations committees deliberate on whether to fund it.

In the U.S., net farm income has declined by half since 2013. Median farm incomes for 2018 are expected to dip to -$1,316, according to the USDA.

“You’ve got areas that are more prone to suicide and those same areas lack access to services,” said Matt Perdue, the National Farmers Union’s government relations representative. “Times are tough financially, and those financial stressors are some of the key drivers for depression and mental health problems. We thought it was time to come out with a strong message.”

With U.S. farm income in the dumps for the fourth straight year, comparisons to the farm crisis of the 1980s (when Jimmy Carter halted grain exports to the Soviet Union, driving down demand, and the Midwest was gripped by pervasive drought) have started to crop up. During that decade, more than 900 farmers in the Upper Midwest alone took their own lives. Wes Sims, president of the Texas Farmers Union, a century-old rural advocacy group based in Sweetwater, said he sees corollaries between this crisis and the one three decades ago. “I think it could be that serious again,” Sims said. “When [farmers] lose land that their granddad bought and their dad passed down to them it’s hard for them to take.”

Sims said he occasionally fields calls from a farmer’s wife who, after the family business has slipped into bankruptcy, suspect their husbands might hurt themselves. He’s made eight-hour drives to talk them down from the ledge, he said, “Though I’m not saying I’m successful every time.”

“I try to convince them of their worth, that they’re underestimating their life, what they’ve done, and what they still can do,” Sims said. “You may not have the farm and the cows, but you’re still alive and there’s still family and there’s still friends.”

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  

Christopher Collins is an Observer staff writer covering rural Texas. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]

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Published at 1:22 pm CST
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