Agriculture is essential to the survival of the world’s burgeoning population.  While about half the populations of underdeveloped nations are farmers, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and other highly developed nations are farmers. 

Their callings are similar but their methods are different; farmers in underdeveloped areas of the world use the agricultural technology of highly developed nations in degrees varying from very little to some.  That’s not necessarily a negative circumstance. 

Farmers in underdeveloped countries usually have not altered their environments as much as large-scale modern farmers have.  Whether or not the drastic modifications that accompany industrialized food production enhance survival in the long run is a question without a sure answer.

The challenges of producing food and materials for clothing, shelter and renewable fuel stir the deepest feelings that give farmers fulfillment or shattered dreams.  While filled with ample rewards, the health of many hardy, modernized agricultural people also is imperiled by threats few could conceive of a century ago. 

Many of the threats are those that accompany modern agricultural production: complex chemicals that can alter life, genetic modification of plants with unknown long-term effects, planetary conditions that affect farming like global warming and political uncertainties with hard-to-predict countries like Russia and China that can waylay well-made business plans.

The insufficiencies of food production in underdeveloped nations do not necessarily require adoption of genetically modified seeds, imported fertilizers, and artificially-created herbicides and insecticides in order to be resolved.  Their insufficiencies of food and other basic necessities can largely be overcome by reduced civil strife, the elimination of corruption within their governments, mechanization, and knowledge of horticulture, animal, poultry and fish science. 

When relatively primitive farmers in India adopted modern agricultural practices, such as applying insecticides on their rice fields, their suicide rate skyrocketed. 

Suicide increased partly from insecticide exposures but other factors also contributed, including but not limited to economic competition from ever-larger mechanized producers, shifts from local to global markets, little interest in farming by offspring who became educated and dismay by small operators that their centuries-old heritage was disappearing. 

Although suicide rates of India’s farmers and those in other modernizing countries in Southeast Asia rose considerably over the past three decades, they are still much lower today than in many developed countries, including the U.S. 

The annual rate of suicide by farmers in India is currently about 2 per 100,000 persons, whereas it is twelve times that in the U.S.  What explains the worse behavioral health in modern nations than in most third world countries?

A combination of factors that are mostly not adequately addressed affect U.S. farmers’ behavioral health and the remediation of problems, such as but not limited to the following:

  • Cultural beliefs held by many people in rural areas that behavioral health of individuals should be kept private, like drinking habits, episodes of depression, violent tendencies and unusual sexual urges
  • Beliefs that hard work, luck and prayer will advance emotional well-being more than anything else because not much can be done to manage emotional health issues like anxiety, fears, and thoughts of self-destruction
  • Insufficient number of behavioral health care-givers, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and other behavioral health professionals in rural and frontier areas, for the number of these professionals per 100,000 persons is half that of the same professionals in non-rural areas
  • Too few professional caregivers who work with the agricultural population have the necessary training in agricultural behavioral health to equip them to understand the culture and occupational factors that enhance vulnerability of the agricultural population to behavioral health problems, like exposures to toxic agricultural pesticides
  • There are increasingly fewer easily approached points of confidential and culturally appropriate contact for farmers needing help, such as farm crisis telephone hotlines, websites and referral services

Good health, including behavioral health, is a factor that contributes to agricultural profitability, according to research findings of the Certified Safe Farm Project that is being conducted through the University of Iowa.    

The behavioral health and safety of agricultural producers are among the least researched factors that affect agricultural producers but they are among the most important.  

Farming is safer in terms of physical injuries and fatalities in the U.S. and many developed countries, due to better designed agricultural equipment, devices such as mobile phones, safety education and preventive measures like wearing impervious gloves when working with hazardous materials. 

However, the occurrences of stress, depression and death by suicide are significantly higher among U.S. farmers than people with similar demographics but who are not farming–about 60 percent greater.  The same is true in many other advanced countries, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom. 

Recognizing that behavioral health issues can be managed with knowledge and by adequately trained and culturally acceptable professionals, is a good investment, for emotionally healthy farmers are more successful than unhappy farmers.

Addressing agricultural behavioral health issues is necessary at federal, state, local and university levels.  All these problem are correctable.


Readers may contact Dr. Rosmann at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.