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Farmer suicide is topic of new program for health care professionals

Kentucky Corn Growers Association

Life on the farm, especially the family farm, often brings to mind images of  hard physical work, balanced by the independence and peace of a rural lifestyle.

But behind the acres of crops and livestock lurks a rarely discussed danger – the high rate of suicide in farming communities.

Western Kentucky University Professor Emerita Susan Jones and her colleagues are bringing the issue of farmer suicide into the public discussion with a training program for health professionals called “CRUSHing Farmer Suicide.” The acronym stands for Cultural Respect, Understanding, Sensitivity and Humility. 

WKU Public Radio reporter Rhonda Miller talked with Susan Jones about the lack of data on farmer suicide, which may be documented as a farming accident or a medical issue, and the new program that offers Continuing Education Units and insight for health care professionals that can build trust and lifesaving connections with farm families. 

Jones: Well, I think the basic fact is that we know that farmers face a lot of stressors, and many things are uncontrollable stressors they have, and we have watched the suicide rate increase. And in fact, as an occupational group, farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide and mental health services are very limited in rural areas. And it's been our observation that many times farmers if they are stressed, and they have symptoms, they may go to a health care provider in a rural area with physical complaints, not necessarily mental. So we thought it was very important to have a continuing education program for healthcare providers that address stress so they could tune in to the farming population and hopefully recognize the stress before a tragic event.

Miller: And Dr. Jones, you know, this, to me seems like it may be a hidden issue or a hidden crisis, because we don't hear about farmer suicide. I mean, it just generally, you know, there's a lot about youth mental health now and all the stresses of the pandemic. But I mean, has this been sort of an ongoing issue that maybe farm families just don't generally talk about?

Jones: Well, there's such a stigma associated with mental health issues. And I think people don't talk about it. 

Miller: Now, you said that farmers have a high rate of suicide as a group? Is there any data on that? Are there any measures of that? Or has it been increasing? Because I think it's very difficult to find what the rate of suicide among farmers is. I have tried to do that. And as you know, there are issues in deaths where they may be an overdose or an accident or an illness and it's not registered as a suicide.

Jones: Yes, it is very difficult to find that data. And in fact, one of the most painful things and the most difficult to recruit, because I'm fairly connected to agricultural communities. I tried to find people that were willing to be interviewed that had lost a loved one to suicide and looked at the burden of suicide. And I was only able to identify a couple of people that they were willing to talk about it because they said they would do it, and then they would call and say, “Susan, this is just too painful. I just can't do it.” So, I can appreciate that. 

Miller: Dr. Jones is there a particular reason you've been working on and researching and teaching about farmer mental health for this quite a while I guess, right? It's one of your special areas of concern.

Jones: Well, I'm particularly interested in rural health care. I grew up in a rural area and I just can't get it out of my blood, I guess. I grew up on a farm. And it's just, these are special people that contribute so much to our quality of life and my heart goes out to them when they hurt. So, anything that can be done to serve them will always will be my, my goal.

Miller: That's wonderful. Well, Dr. Jones, thank you so much for speaking with me. This is a very kind of important and I think, you know, sort of an unseen topic. So, it's been wonderful speaking with you.

Jones: Thank you so much. 

Miller: I've been talking with WKU Professor Emeritus Susan Jones. I'm Rhonda Miller in Bowling Green.

Rhonda Miller joined WKU Public Radio in 2015. She has worked as Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where she won Associated Press, Edward R. Murrow and Green Eyeshade awards for stories on dead sea turtles, health and legal issues arising from the 2010 BP oil spill and homeless veterans.
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