Thursday, June 21, 2018

Farmer suicides are 5 times higher than rest of population; new program in Washington state aims to help

Suicide is an epidemic among farmers, with 84.5 deaths per 100,000 people, almost five times higher than the rest of the population, according to a 2016 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Washington state, a new law is trying to address it.

The Washington Young Farmers Coalition lobbied for statewide legislation to help reduce farmer suicide after one of their founding members killed himself. During the latest legislative session, the state House and Senate unanimously approved a bill that created a suicide-prevention task force of mental-health experts and representatives of different agricultural sectors. It took effect June 7.

"The task force will produce a study by Dec.1 that includes data on the suicide rates, substance abuse, and accessibility and usage of behavioral health services among agricultural workers; occupational factors that lead to suicide; components to be included in a preventative pilot program; and strategies for improving the behavioral health of agricultural workers and their families," Melissa Hellmann reports for the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter. "The state Department of Health will then create a pilot program for workers in the agricultural industry in a yet-to-be-determined county 'west of the Cascade crest that is reliant on the agricultural industry' by March 2019."

The pilot program will include telephone counseling and services in Spanish and English, since 71 percent of farm laborers are immigrants. Immigrant farmworkers will be represented by a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a fourth-generation farmer, sponsored the bill that led to the program. In an interview with Seattle Weekly he noted that farming is a "lonely occupation" since many of the social organizations that used to bring farmers together, like Ruritan or Lions clubs, are diminished or gone in rural areas without anything to replace them, Hellmann reports.

Some other factors that may contribute to farmers' high suicide rate: exposure to pesticides (which could affect the brain and encourage depression), the financial risk of farming, and the difficulty of quitting when times are hard. "Unlike other jobs in which workers can quit in the face of uncertainty, agriculture is interwoven into a farmer’s legacy, identity, finances, and housing," Hellmann reports. Washington State Dairy Federation Policy Director Jay Gordon put it more simply: "Nobody wants to be the generation that lost the farm."

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