Hopelessness, Suicide Rates Rise In Agricultural Communities

Nov 19, 2019

According to Commissioner Kerry Gibson of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Utah has seen an increase in suicide and depression within the agricultural community. He said one reason for this is the continually falling profitability of farms. 

“As I looked back into the latest USDA Census of 2017, 56% of U.S. farmers reported a net loss on cash income on their farms. And even worse than that, in Utah, that number rises to about 65%," Gibson said. “As we look at specific sectors in the agricultural industry, dairy farms specifically, are facing some real challenges. Since 1970, for instance, there’s been a drop of 93% of our dairy farms in the U.S.”

This is something Jay and Peggy Tuddenham of Nibley have experienced firsthand. 

“I don’t know of any dairy farms in Nibley anymore," Peggy said. "They’ve all sold out.”

Peggy said though the family farm — which was started by Jay’s father Ralph in 1956 — was initially a small dairy farm. Over the years it has turned more and more toward other ways of farming. Typical of the farming community, the Tuddenhams have tried to make-do with what they have. Jay has personally welded and repaired equpiment and machinery for decades. The out-of-use milk barn bares the scars of multiple repairs and patches.

But it is old equipment that now needs to be replaced.

"Jay can fix all the old equipment, but now the new stuff has computerized things, and he can’t fix that," Peggy said. "I sometimes wonder what we would have done had we not been able to do our own repairs because that becomes very expensive also. We’ve tried to do the things ourselves so that we can keep the cost down, but costs keep rising and machinery gets more expensive all the time.

Between issues with equipment and a recently settled family inheritance lawsuit, they’ve been forced to give up dairy farming to raise cattle for meat.

And with houses encroaching on one side of their crops and an industrial park moving in on the other, she said they don’t know how long they can continue to farm.

“You don’t know. That’s why a farmer is really a gambler, because you depend on the weather, you depend on the water. Some years, we have a lot of water. Some years we don’t have any. Some years it’s hot, some years it’s cool. You just work around that weather," she said. "You just always look ahead. Next year will be better. Next year’s crops will be better. Next year, we’ll change something, so that it will be better, so, you’re always looking forward. Hopefully you’re looking ahead.”

Jeramie Tubbs, the health educator for the TriCounty Health Department, said this is the common mindset of the agricultural community. But for those suffering from severe depression, many farmers and ranchers are no longer able to remain hopeful. In fact, Tubbs said the chance of suicide in Utah goes up 16 times if the individual lives in a rural area or works in agriculture. 

“Farmers and ranchers are dying by suicide, but the people — they aren’t reaching out for help," Tubbs said. "You know, they're just feeling like you’re sinking down this rabbit hole. My soapbox is we’ve got to train people, whole families, so they can recognize these signs and symptoms in their loved ones and have these conversations. Part of our QPR training is to ask.”

QPR is an awareness and prevention training provided by the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition. It stands for question, persuade, and refer — steps individuals can take when they see warning signs in their friends and family members.

Tubbs said it can be hard for people to open up about the issue, even for families who have been affected by suicide. 

“There’s so much shame and stigma around suicide and mental health, it’s tricky. Not everybody wants to share," she said. "I tell people 'you may learn things today that make an ah-ha moment for you, but you can’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know.'”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide rates in the country are at the highest they’ve been in 28 years. The study also revealed that agricultural workers and those in underserved rural areas make up 84.5 of every 100,000 suicides. Its website also lists warning signs to be aware of to help prevent suicides.

Gibson said the high rates of suicide in the farming and ranching community is what inspired him to create the Circle the Wagons initiative as one of his first messages when he was appointed the new agriculture commissioner earlier this year. The goal is to extend resources and programs available to the agricultural community and raise awareness of the often-ignored mental health struggles in agriculture.

More information about the campaign and resources for the agricultural community can be found at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's website.

Help for those struggling with depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts is available at the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or via chat at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.