By Jordan Strickler
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – According to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – five years before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world – rates of suicide in rural communities measured twice that of urban areas. Falling commodity prices, bad weather, trade wars along with debt loads are just a few of the problems that farmers are facing today.
A CDC report earlier this year found that in a survey of suicide rates by industry and occupation in 32 states, the suicide rate among male farmers and ranchers was 43.2 per 100,000, compared with 27.4 per 100,000 among working-age men in all occupations. The study also found that suicide rates overall had increased by 40 percent in less than two decades. As of March of this year, more than 450 farmers had killed themselves across nine Midwestern states from 2014 to 2018, according to data collected by the USA Today Network and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
To address the problem, the USDA created the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. Now the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture has been chosen to coordinate the effort in the South Region, one of four regions across the country involved in the effort.
The project, which the university was granted $7.2 million to utilize by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will span three years and involve 13 states and two U.S. territories. It will include more than 50 partner organizations, from land-grant institutions to government agencies, commodity and lending groups, and non-profit organizations.
Heather Sedges, an associate professor in the UT extension Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, will serve as the southern region project leader and coordinate efforts across the state of Tennessee. Among the state’s leading partners are the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the UT Institute of Agriculture’s MANAGE program (Measuring, Analyzing, Navigating, and Achieving Goals Effectively) and the Tennessee Farmer Suicide Prevention Taskforce.
“This funding allows us to establish a multi-faceted and network-driven response to the needs of farmers and ranchers, their families, and communities as they navigate challenging times,” Sedges said.
The network will coordinate six strategies designed to assist citizens of rural communities. These include establishing a hotline for immediate accessibility, developing a comprehensive website with information and resources to address individual situations and curating and creating resources for the website. The effort will also establish training for representatives working within rural communities to support individuals through direct services or support groups. Research into how to alleviate farmer and rancher stress as well as the issues endemic to rural communities will also be a part of the effort.
“As a family nurse practitioner, I have seen firsthand how sustained stress and mental health issues can take a heavy toll on individuals, families and entire communities,” said Julie Marfell, associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing who will be assisting with the effort. “During this time of economic uncertainty, it is especially important that we engage with our farm families and rural communities to understand their needs and provide the services and resources necessary to improve their mental health and wellness.”
The other regions, also receiving $7.2 million over the three years, will be led by the University of Illinois, Urbana (North Central Region); the National Young Farmers Coalition (Northeast Region); and Washington State University (Western Region).