Farming has the highest rate of suicide of all jobs. During the 1980s farm crisis, male farmers in the United States became four times more likely to kill themselves than non-farmers and recent estimates report that the suicide rate remains nearly two times that of the general population.
Food Tank was fortunate to speak with Hal McCabe, Outreach Director of non-profit organization NY FarmNet, a free and confidential service dedicated to assisting New York State farming families and preventing farmer suicides.
Food Tank: What is the vision of FarmNet? Has this changed over your 28-year history?
Hal McCabe: NY FarmNet was established by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University in response to the nationwide farm crisis in 1986. The program began as a toll free helpline to link farm families who were experiencing personal and financial stress with free, confidential consulting.
The crisis response helpline has evolved into a program that takes a proactive approach to prevent future crises and overcome challenges facing the family and business. NY FarmNet encourages farm families to contact us sooner rather than later, because like a doctor, the preventative and proactive things we can do in a time of good health are just as important as the services and support we can provide in a time of crisis.
FT: What do you see as the contributing factors to farmer depression and suicide?
HM: Farms are generally like no other small family business. Stress is inevitable as farming is such an all-consuming, demanding profession. And since agricultural prices are always in flux and often provide only the thinnest profit margins, it is very easy to get underwater, and very difficult to get back out.
More often than not, NY FarmNet are not dealing with first generation farmers when it comes to depression or suicide. Often it is the second, third, or fourth generation.
When you compound the inherent stress of the job with the worry that they might be letting down their entire family, both current and past generations, the farmer is threatened by the possible loss of: their business/livelihood; their home; and their heritage.
That is an enormous amount of pressure to carry around with you.
FT: The personal lives of farmers and their financial livelihoods are inextricably intertwined. How can we best support farmers in the work that they do?
HM: Letting farmers know a 100 percent free, 100 percent confidential service like NY FarmNet exists and is standing by to help them is very important. I wish other states had the program we have, because I know for a fact we save dozens and dozens of farms every single year.
We provide our services at the kitchen table on the farm at a time that works for them. This is the key to the success of this program.
Our 47 consultants are the most amazing resource I know of for farm families in NY. Half of our consultants are licensed social workers that handle personal issues, and the other half are seasoned financial experts who help with the nuts and bolts.
FT: Do you feel that barriers exist for farmers to access health and support mechanisms?
HM: Absolutely. And this is the most critical thing that NY FarmNet provides: we identify cases and we refer when necessary, and we do this work ON THE FARM.
Farming is a very small world in NY, and farmers do not want the stigma of their neighbors seeing their trucks in the parking lot of the county mental health office. On top of this, farmers are rurally located for the most part, and distance alone can be a barrier to them seeking services.
And finally, farming is a high stress, high pressure, and 24/7 job. As a result, farmers are VERY reluctant to ever take time off, creating yet another barrier for them to obtain help.
FT: FarmNet was recently interviewed as part of NewsWeek’s “Death on the Farm” cover story, which highlighted the devastatingly high rate of farmer suicide across the world. Do you feel that conversations in the media are helping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health amongst farmers?
HM: In regards to how much the stigma around farmer mental illness has been reduced, I’m not sure. Farming is a small world and most farmers don’t like their neighbors knowing their personal business.
I think the thing that holds NY FarmNet from helping more farmers is lack of funding. If a farmer picks up their free weekly paper and our services are not advertised in it, we are not on their mind when things turn dark.
I think we have a long way to go before the stigma of farmer mental illness is reduced. In the meantime, NY FarmNet is here to help, confidentially, and on the farm.