Frank J. Buchman

Cowboy • Horseman • Writer

Online Therapy Could Be A Tool To Help Prevent Farmer Suicide

Every 11 minutes, someone takes their own life, and 68-percent of those who die by suicide are from rural areas.

Suicide rates among farmers are six times higher than the national average, said Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, University of Alberta psychology professor.

“The high rate of farmer suicide means that many rural communities have a mental crisis on their hands,” said Jeff Winton.

Rural Minds is a non-profit mental health organization founded by Winton who lost his nephew to suicide. The loss was unexpected as Winton and his nephew worked together on Winton’s dairy farm.

Winton said farmers should be more open about depression, mental health, listening, and help make connections with mental health professionals.

“There are lot of studies about what might place farmers at risk. But we never know what was going on in the farmer’s life leading up to the suicide,” Purc-Stephenson said.

Most farmers are trying to maximize production and maintain the farm. They are co-dependent and influenced by various unpredictable factors, weather, prices, animal health, family dynamics, and government regulations.

“But not all will have suicidal thoughts or behavior,” Purc-Stephenson said. Male farmers are also more likely to take their own life than female farmers.

One suicide study found that older rural men and women with health problems were more likely to die by suicide. At the same time, younger men were more likely to take their own life if they were experiencing relationship problems.

Many barriers limit the farming community’s ability to seek help. “Rural America doesn’t have the healthcare system that many urban and suburban areas do,” Winton said.

Most practicing psychologists and psychiatrists work solely in metropolitan areas. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 65-percent of the counties in the U.S. do not have a practicing psychiatrist.

Eight one percent of rural counties don’t have a psychiatric nurse practitioner available for a mental health crisis. Most rural communities receive mental health care from their primary healthcare provider. Law enforcement officers are worked with during an emergency.

“A primary care doctor isn’t necessarily trained in mental health or human depression,” Winton said.

The limited number of resources strengthens the stigma that marks mental health in rural communities. People can often feel ashamed to seek out the help they need, Winton said.

During the pandemic, most healthcare professionals leaned on telemedicine as a tool to see patients. It also has been an aid in improving mental healthcare access for some rural areas.

Research has found that farmers often denounce therapy as a waste of time. However, Cynthia Beck, psychology professor at the University of Regina in Canada, disagrees.

Beck, also a Canadian beef farmer, recently finished a clinical study asking if agricultural producers would engage in online therapy.

Thirty farmers participated in a five-lesson course with do-it-yourself guides and access to a therapist via email or telephone.

Farmers had an 82-percent completion rate compared to the general population clinical research study, which had a 31-percent dropout rate.

“Ag producers were more engaged with the additional resources than the general population,” said Beck.

About 90-perceht of the farmers downloaded all 20 guides from the course, said Beck. Farmers also said they wanted more time with the course therapist.

“Producers said they felt like they were speaking with friends and the program completely understood them,” Beck added. “One participant told us said the course gave them more confidence and improved their overall view of help-seeking.”

The study proved that online therapy is a usable psychological intervention tool for farmers.

The course was worth their time and helped them feel less anxious and depressed, Beck said. The only limitation was broadband access.

One farmer finished the course from the seat of his combine on his smartphone.

The AgriStress Helpline is 833-897-2474, National Suicide Prevention is text 988, and emotional support text is 74174.


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