The Ones the Wolves Pull Down

A rural mental health crisis and Oklahoma budget cuts threaten farmers.

Posted Dec 16, 2017

Robert Mather
Rugged terrain of Western Oklahoma at a watering stop where settlers rested on the California Trail.
Source: Robert Mather

“Most ranchers thought it was just another dry spell when the clouds dried up in 1950. That was until it persisted into the next summer, and into the next, and into the next…Creeks and rivers began to recede …The verdant grass curled up and turned brown and then disappeared altogether…Dust storms kicked up almost every afternoon…the cattle searched the countryside for something to eat and found nothing but shriveling and often noxious weeds. Their hipbones began to stand out, and their ribs rippled below ragged hides.” (Dent, 1999, p. 25-26).

In The Junction Boys, Jim Dent described the Texas drought of the 1950’s that ultimately bankrupted my grandfather’s East Texas farm supply business as farmers could not pay their debts. Farming is a rough life that is unpredictable, with many factors (weather, commodity prices, etc.) that are out of control of a hard working farmer. But the profession is necessary to the survival of humans across the planet.

My home state of Oklahoma has a very large rural population, with 33.8% of Oklahomans living in rural areas in 2010, and has recently threatened substantial budget cuts to mental health programs. This is a poor choice for the health of Oklahomans, as rural communities are in desperate need of better quality mental health care, which benefits all of society.

Recently, The Guardian published an article outlining the suicide epidemic of farmers in the United States.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that for every 100,000 workers in “Farming, fishing, and forestry,” 84.5 committed suicide. Contrast that with the 7.5 for every 100,000 workers in “Education, training and library,” 15.9 for every 100,000 workers in “Business and financial operation,” and 17.4 for every 100,000 workers in “Healthcare practitioners and technical” (CDC, 2016). Newsweek noted that suicide rates for farmers are comparable to the rates for veterans, which is also an epidemic. The Guardian (Weingarten, 2017) noted that the epidemic of farmer suicides is not confined to the United States, providing similar data from Australia, United Kingdom, France, and India.

Fortunately, psychology researchers are doing great work in pursuing suicide treatments. Dr. David Rudd, President of the University of Memphis, has done a great deal of research into suicide treatments, identifying those at risk for suicide, and has applied these models extensively to veterans.  Dr. Matthew Nock, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has researched similar issues, but has also worked to develop machine learning models that help to identify those at risk for suicide. These machine learning models could be especially useful in assisting in the mental health treatment of farmers, since remote access in rural communities make treatment problematic. Currently some farmers have access to local farmer-specific hotlines, but the isolated life of farmers means that often they may have limited cell phone service when alone and working on the farm, and phone access may only come at home when they are around other family members and unlikely to seek help. Machine learning might provide the gateway to treatments through the internet. Unfortunately, this still requires internet access, which may be unavailable to many farmers. Indeed, The Guardian article interviewed a farmer who had to go in town to a library to get internet access to get a phone number of a mental health resource, and then have the librarian e-mail the clinician for the farmer.

In the tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, mental health serves the “life” and “pursuit of happiness” tenets and is a valuable investment for a government, as the foundations of liberty. The mental health of the population is a worthy expenditure that pays dividends of a productive and happier workforce.

Farmers have enough challenges in providing the food sources for the world without the additional challenge of poor access to mental health treatments. On the sprawling ranches of Western Oklahoma, the cotton farms of West Texas, and wheat farms of Kansas, who is a farmer to talk to about suicidal thoughts when there may not be an ear to lend for 30 miles? Rural communities can be islands of loneliness for some, leading to self-medication through methamphetamines (Shukla, 2016), opioids, and alcohol. The solution to addiction is evidence-based mental health treatment, as is the treatment for depression, suicidal thoughts, etc.

In 1990, Oklahoman Garth Brooks sang “Wolves,” in which he told the story of a struggling farmer who is worried about keeping his farm. He sang:

“Tonight outside my window, there’s a lonesome, mournful sound

And I just can’t keep from thinking about the ones the wolves pull down

Oh Lord, keep me from being the one the wolves pull down”

As a society, we should prioritize access to quality mental health care for farmers. The suicide statistics are clear that the wolves are surrounding our farmers. We need to keep our farmers from being the ones the wolves pull down.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016, July 1). Morbidity and mortality weekly report: Suicide rates by occupational group-17 states, 2012. CDC. (online)

Dent, J, (1999). The Junction boys. New York: Thomas Dunne.

Denwalt, D. (2017, November 22). Oklahoma Soonercare cut is delayed. Newsok.com (online).

Kutner, M. (2016, July 13). Some farmers have higher suicide rates than veterans. Newsweek (online).

Shukla, R. K. (2016). Methamphetamine: A love story. University of California Press.

United States Department of Commerce (2012, September). Oklahoma 2010: Population and housing unit counts. United States Census Bureau (online).

Weingarten, D. (2017, December 6). Why are America’s farmers killing themselves in record numbers? The Guardian (online).

Wingerter, M. (2017, October 19). Proposed budget cuts could close Oklahoma mental health centers. Newsok.com (online).