FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Here’s a statistic some might find disturbing. The suicide rate among Indiana farmers has tripled since the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of that, Purdue Extension is working to destigmatize agricultural mental health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in 2017 that found rural areas had significantly higher suicide rates than metropolitan areas. Data compiled by County Health Rankings shows there is just one mental health provider for every 480 residents in Allen County. In DeKalb County, which has a much more rural population, there is one mental health provider for every 1,620 residents.

Purdue Extension was established in 1914 with the goal of educating residents of all Indiana counties on issues in the agriculture industry. For example, Purdue Extension is heavily involved with Indiana’s 4-H program. Even though education is a top priority for the research team, mental health was not part of its curriculum. However, that changed in 2019 with the creation of the Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team.

Rural communities saw an increase in suicides from 2001 to 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The current stigma

The mental health of farmers has always been somewhat of a taboo topic until the formation of the farm stress team. An American Farm Bureau 2019 survey found that 82% of farmers believe mental health is important, but only 21% sought care for it. 

Angela Sorg, health and human science educator for Purdue Extension and licensed mental health therapist, works to attain grants to train individuals and leads programming expansion. 

“When I first started working at [Purdue Extension], I went guns blazing that we’re gonna talk about mental health,” Sorg said. “It was crickets. It was difficult to get programming started because ‘we don’t talk about farmers’ mental health.’”

During the farm stress team’s conception, the dairy industry dealt with extremely low milk prices that led to the dumping of millions of gallons of milk by farmers. About 10% of all Indiana Dairy Farms closed; families lost their farms.

Aside from the loss of products, farmers are experiencing a loss in profit. As the production costs continue to rise, a study by the American Farm Bureau found that select fertilizer prices are increasing upwards of 300%, with fertilizer being 15% of a farmer’s total cash cost.

Prices of major nutrients are increasing as well. Ammonia has increased by over 210% and liquid nitrogen has increased by over 159%. This rapid increase in production cost and slow increase of crop value is making the profit margin smaller.

A USDA 2023 and 2024 Price Outlook predicts fresh vegetable prices will increase by 1.1% in 2023. However, fresh vegetables are one of the few products to increase. The USDA predicts farm-level milk prices to decline 26.0%, farm-level soybean prices to decline 7.5% and farm-level wheat prices to decline 18.7%.

These costs are just declining on the farmer’s side. Consumers are seeing food prices increase but farmers are not seeing those extra dollars. Since December 2022, grocery prices have risen nearly 12%. With the profit margin dwindling, farmers see their crops as a failure. Farmers are unable to maintain production costs and the cost of living.

According to data collected by the USA TODAY Network, from 2014 to 2018, over 450 farmers committed suicide across nine Midwestern states. Sorg said that local educators were not equipped for these conversations, so she began researching farmers’ mental health resources in Indiana… and found nothing.

Forging a new path

Since a farm stress team did not exist in Indiana, Sorg and others traveled to Michigan State University for training. Abigail Heidenreich, Kelly Heckaman and Rachel Dillhoff each work on various programs to destigmatize the mental health climate in Indiana. 

Since 1996, Heckaman has been working within Purdue Extension. Her current efforts are connecting and representing Purdue women in agriculture in regard to farm stress. She is trained for farm stress programming and has worked with community leaders and bankers to create awareness through educational courses. 

Heidenreich considers herself a “jack of all trades.” She assists with committees, such as podcast and program development. Since the Indiana farm stress team’s formation, they have been utilizing Michigan State’s curriculum, and a committee is working to create Indiana’s personal curriculum. 

On the communications side, Dillhoff is looking to connect to farmers in their fields via podcasts. This allows the farm stress team to produce content that is relatable yet easily accessible to farmers wherever they are. In addition to the podcast, Dillhoff works on social media to push programming out and reach wider agricultural audiences.

All farm stress team members mentioned how difficult it can be to get farmers to the program. Dillhoff expresses the importance of the podcast and media communications aspect. 

“If they do not want to come to our programming, they can listen to it in the privacy of their farms or homes,” Dillhoff said. “Which connects us to more farmers statewide who might not have local resources.”

The “Tools For Today’s Farmers” podcast series discusses the mental health climate within the agricultural community and how farmers can access stress resources. The podcast has included special guests to speak on their battles with mental health. ABC Meteorologist Ginger Zee spoke about her book “Natural Disaster”, in which she details her depression struggles. Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter explained how he instills mental health advocacy within his team.

From Indiana government officials to hometown heroes, “Tools For Today’s Farmers” hopes to bring relatable conversational content to farmers anytime, anywhere.

Impact on Indiana

Due to confidentiality constraints, there is limited data to show the effects of the Indiana farm stress team program. With minimal data, the farm stress team is hopeful of the program’s success. 

The Purdue Farm Stress Team attended 16 trade shows reaching over 162,014 attendees, including youth, who attended educational programming and training.

Two of the stress team’s PSA videos have been released focusing on farmers, farm families and meat packers with 5,621 views.

In June 2023, two billboard campaigns were launched to reach over 600,000 individuals in communities with statistically high farmer suicide rates.

Over 300 crisis call center employees, mental health care workers, farmers, farm families, and/or agribusiness employees have participated in Purdue’s educational programming.

“We do not know if this information has gotten someone connected with mental health resources,” Heckman said. “We know it is being viewed but do not know if it is being used.”

However, from an internal perspective, the team has grown from around 11 individuals to over 20. Sorg noted how the program has expanded to collaborate with over 12 universities while participating in multi-state research. 

From a legislative perspective, creating government-sponsored programs can assist the growing suicide rates. Sen. Brian Buchanan said how mental health was a theme of the 2023 legislative session. 

“Legislators are trying to break the stigma overall with mental health,” Buchanan said. “It is resources such as Purdue Extension’s farm stress team that will bring help to farmers statewide on a personal level.”

In early April, the House Public Health Committee passed Senate Bill 1, which aims to improve Indiana’s response to mental health crises.

New house bills focused on mental health resources for veterans with and without PTSD became a frequent session conversation. Approximately 11% of U.S. farmers are veterans, so these services would be applicable to them.

Heidenreich, Heckaman and Dillhoff said “strong,” “resilient” and “passionate” are all words that describe the farm stress team, highlighting the effort that goes in day-to-day to provide farmers with access to lifesaving resources.  

Sorg concluded by expressing her admiration for the agriculture community and her commitment to being a mental health advocate. “I will continue to support our local farmers, just as they support us, crop after crop.”

How to get help

If you or someone you know is in need of farming mental health resources, visit Purdue Extention Farm Stress Team’s website. For immediate assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for anyone in crisis or looking to help another. Call — 988 — or text the Crisis Text Line by messaging HELLO to 741741. Both are free, 24/7 and confidential.