Suicide: Permanent End to a Temporary Problem

By Dr. Mike Rosmann

Suicide is a difficult subject to talk about. Yet it is one farm and rural people need to be aware of. The rate of suicide by male farmers is about 60 percent higher than among the overall male population. Probably all of us know a farm person who has taken his or her life.

Suicide by men involved in farming or ranching is about five times more common than suicide by women. Data show that the average farmer suicide is a white male in his late 50s who would have 15 or more years of productive farming if he remained alive. The average retirement age of farmers is currently 74.

The USDA estimated average net farm income was $92,000 for 2012. Assuming this, the total loss for a farmer over 15 years would be about $1.38 million, plus the incalculable emotional pain to the family and community. It’s the emotional pain and the human capital loss to the family and community that are by far the greatest.

Dr. Paul Gunderson, former director of the National Farm Medicine Center, examined the contributing characteristics of farm residents and workers in five states (Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) who undertook suicide from 1980 to 1988. The findings are relevant yet today. Gunderson and his colleagues found that farm men were most likely to take their lives on Sunday mornings after daybreak, whereas the early morning hours before 3:00 a.m. on Wednesdays are the prime times for self-imposed death for the general population, according to recent studies.

Self-inflicted gunshots were by far the most common method of suicide by farm men, accounting for 62 percent of all victims in Gunderson’s study. Farm people are three times more likely to own a gun than non-farm people, and it’s more likely that a rifle or shotgun is the instrument of death than a handgun.

The work my colleagues and I have carried out indicates that financial stress is the most common precipitant of suicidal thoughts. Threatened loss of the land and resources needed to farm productively are contributors to many farmer suicides. Not surprisingly, the suicide rate among British farmers whose livestock were burned to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease during the early 2000s rose temporarily to ten times the rate of their nonfarm counterparts.

Farm people who are thinking of suicide give few warnings. Male farmers undertake about three attempts per completed act, whereas nonfarm males make about five attempts per completed act. Women on the farm exhibit about five attempts or gestures, whereas females in the general population demonstrate about 25 or more attempts or gestures per completed act.

About forty percent of farmers who take their lives fortify themselves with alcohol or other mind-altering substances prior to carrying out the suicidal act. Two decades ago, substance misuse was less common among rural constituents but now it is increasing.

Suicide among farm people can be cleverly disguised as an “accident.” Some farmers undertake suicide as a final attempt to bring about something they think is positive, such as life insurance payments for their survivors or attention to a cause they feel needs to be rectified. As some see it at their moment of decision, suicide is a sacrificial act aimed at producing a positive outcome for their survivors. Acts of martyrdom may be aimed at focusing media attention on their travail and those in similar circumstances.

Others feel they cannot go on and have no hope to continue to struggle except to escape the greatest misery they have ever experienced. Often they are clinically depressed, but not always. Their judgment has been altered and they feel they have a higher purpose that most persons cannot understand. The pain felt at the moment outweighs the permanent consequences—death. Sometimes the motives of the deceased are never known.

In some cases their judgment may be altered by exposure to certain pesticides that are aimed at killing insects. Many pesticides kill insects by keeping too much of the essential transmitter chemical, acetylcholine, in their nervous systems, causing them to expire from hyperactivity. In humans these chemicals produce similar effects when taken into the body too abundantly. Humans try to extract the chemicals through heavy secretions (sweat, mucus flow, urine) and vomiting when acutely poisoned. Despite many studies that implicate exposures to toxic insecticides, the overall research on the contribution of pesticides to suicide has unclear findings. More research is needed to reach a conclusive result.What is conclusive is that farmer suicides increase during the planting and harvest seasons. The stress to farmers during these seasons, as well as possible exposures to toxic insecticides may have important roles.

Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist and farmer. Contact him at:

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