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High rate of farmer suicides needs government action, Schumer says

Staff Reports Posted 10 December 2019 at 9:54 am

U..S. Sen. Charles Schumer wants the federal government to increase mental health resources in rural communities, especially for farmers, who have a suicide rate 3.5 times the general population.

Sen. Schumer

Schumer was at a Wyoming County dairy farm on Nov. 27 for a news conference about the issue. Schumer said farmers face a number of stressors that can negatively impact mental health, including financial issues, climate and weather challenges, farm or business problems, and fear of losing their farm.

To address this escalating issue, which is doing real damage to farmers in the GLOW Region of Upstate New York, Schumer launched a two-pronged plan. First, he called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive study of suicides among farmers. Second, he called on Congress to expediently pass the Seeding Rural Resilience Act, which would establish a number of initiatives designed to quell farmer suicides.

“On a good day our family farmers work long hours on tight margins,” Schumer said. “Our farmers are beset by enormous pressures, and so many factors out of their control—from bad weather to bad government policy to giant swings in the economic cycle—that for too many it becomes too much and tragedy ensues. That is why we need to break through the silence, and why we must together confront this challenge, offer better avenues for our farmers who are hurting to getting help, and do more studies so we have a real handle on the depth of the mental health challenge we face,” said Senator Schumer.

Schumer explained that suicide has increasingly become a major public health crisis in Upstate New York and the GLOW Region. In New York State, the suicide rate has increased by more than 28 percent over the past two decades. Specifically, Wyoming County has the 8th highest suicide rate in New York State, and the highest in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region.

According to the New York State Department of Health, 22 individuals died by suicide in Wyoming County from 2015 to 2017, representing a rate of 18 deaths per 100,000 people. Nationwide, a total of 47,173 Americans died by suicide in 2017, well above 2016’s recorded total of 44,695. Schumer said that this follows an alarming trend that has seen the national suicide rate increase by 33 percent since 1999.

“Farmers face a number of unique circumstances that can negatively influence mental health, including a constant fear of losing their farm,” Schumer said. “These stressors, which can be exacerbated by stigma and inadequate access to mental health services in underserved, rural areas, have manifested in a disproportionate rate of suicide among farmers. We need better mental health care for farmers, better information on how they can access that care, and better data on the nature and extent of the problem.”

The CDC has previously acknowledged that its 2018 report on suicides was limited in scope, as it only considered data from 17 states participating in the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) in both 2012 and 2015. Also, it is estimated that the 17 states included in the 2018 study only represented roughly one quarter of farms across the country. Now that all 50 states participate in the NVDRS, Schumer explained the CDC now has data that is representative of the entire nation and the farmer population.

Second, Schumer urged Congress to expediently consider and pass the Seeding Rural Resilience Act. Introduced in the Senate by Senators Jon Tester [D-MT] and Chuck Grassley [R-IA], this bipartisan legislation would establish three initiatives designed to help farmers cope with issues of mental health, including:

• Establish a requirement for USDA to offer voluntary stress management training to employees of the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and National Resources Conservation Service.

• Authorize the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA to execute a $3 million public awareness campaign about mental health issues on farms and ranches and to destigmatize mental health care in rural areas

• Require the Secretary of Agriculture to collaborate with stakeholders from state and local governments, as well as the agricultural industry, to issue best practices to address mental health issues on farms and ranches.

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