N.C. institute working to help farmers facing mental health crisis

Farmers in eastern North Carolina are facing a crisis of compounding issues that are threatening their mental health and that of their families.

There’s the increased competition from foreign trade because other countries are able to produce crops for much less and the damaging recent international agricultural tariffs. These issues are juxtaposed with domestic input costs rising dramatically over the last two decades while the price that farmers receive for their products continues to shrink.

Then there’s the recent surge of “nuisance lawsuits” targeting North Carolina hog farmers and the back-to-back years of major hurricanes that hit the state, followed by a very wet winter and an extremely dry spring this year. 

These issues add to the daily mental, physical and emotional stress experienced by the region’s farmers, many of whom are struggling to keep operational the farms that have been in their families for generations.

“It’s almost like banging your head against a brick wall. You do everything you can to get your entire business lined up and set right, and then one thing comes across and you can lose everything. You’re on the verge of losing what has been in the family for multiple generations,” said Archie Griffin, a third-generation farmer in Washington, North Carolina. “No one wants to have that burden fall on their shoulders. You don’t want to be the person who lets the family down.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last year that a coding error prompted it to retract its widely circulated 2012 report that determined the farming, fishing and forestry occupational group had the nation’s highest suicide rate that year at 84.5 suicides per 100,000.

However, the National Farmers Union (NFU) argued that the revised report still revealed the suicide rate for male “farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers” was double that of the general population in 2012. And furthermore, if that group were considered a major group instead of a management subgroup, they would “rank first and third in suicides in 2012 and 2015, respectively.”

The North Carolina Agromedicine Institute – a partnership between East Carolina University, North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University – is working to target farm stress and pair farmers with resources to help them tackle issues of anxiety or depression.

“The most important thing is we need to sustain our farmers,” said the institute’s director, ECU’s Dr. Robin Tutor Marcom. “If we lose a farmer because of suicide, then there is a very good chance that that farm is going to go out of production. And we already have less than 2% of the population feeding the remaining 98%.”

The institute has a long history of working with industry and regional partners to advocate for the health and safety of farmers, fishermen, foresters, their workers and their families through research, prevention, intervention and education outreach.

During the last year and a half, however, the institute has increased its efforts to raise awareness about farm stress and how it affects the farmers, their families and their communities. This spring, it hosted a series of meetings throughout the region to learn more from community stakeholders about the resources and education they need to more effectively help farmers and their families, as well as the organizations that work with them.

Institute officials are working to pair the results from those meetings with the appropriate resources and to identify where gaps exist in order to pursue grants for private funding. They also plan to offer training for health care providers and behavioral health care providers specific to the needs of farming communities.

“Because of our unique partnership, we have a trust factor that many other agencies don’t have,” Tutor Marcom said. “All of our work at the institute is done in the community with farmers, farm families and farm agencies. So because we’ve been working in the area of farm health for over 20 years, people know us and we have become the go-to organization to help.”

Read more about this issue and the N.C. Agromedicine Institute’s efforts to address below: