UK HealthCare

Op-Ed: Increased Suicide Awareness, Mental Health Efforts are Needed to Support Kentucky Farmers

Image of Janie Heath in exterior cooridor.
Janie Heath is the dean of the UK College of Nursing.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 21, 2021) Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among Americans. And while suicidal thoughts and mental health conditions can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or background — there are particular occupations where suicide is more prevalent. One of these occupations is farming. With Kentucky being home to more than 125,000 farmers, the need to raise suicide awareness is vital and why Sept. 22, 2021, has been declared Farmer Suicide Prevention Day in Kentucky. 

In Kentucky, 109 farmers died by suicide from 2004-2017, with the highest number of deaths occurring among farmers over age 64.

Today, the demand for farmers and stressors placed on the farming community is at an all-time high. Kentuckians, and all Americans, need access to quality food to support healthy eating and local economies. The pandemic highlighted this critical need when certain foods and other supplies became scare on grocery store shelves. From growing crops to managing cattle, farmers play a significant role in providing basic food supplies, yet they cannot meet this consistent demand when they are struggling with stress or depression.

Farmers are more susceptible to suicide because of unique stressors and suicide exposures associated with agriculture production, which include social isolation, relationship problems, and unpredictable forces such as crop and livestock loss, machinery breakdown and commodity market fluctuations.

The University of Kentucky College of Nursing and College of Agriculture, Food and Environment are working to address farmer suicide and mental health awareness through a unique dinner theater program called BARN (Bringing Awareness Right Now). The collaborative partnership utilizes support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, AARP and the Kentucky Beef Council, to teach farm families how to identify mental health issues and combat stress through watching performances about real life situations that highlight common mental health issues among farmers. Last month, 170 farm family members in Logan and Warren counties participated in the first BARN dinner theater event, where they began to learn how to shift the perception about farmer mental health. 

Programs like the BARN dinner theater are important because they help spread awareness, which in turn helps destigmatize mental health issues, promotes having an open dialogue about issues and encourages people to seek treatment. 

Strategies highlighted in the BARN program can also be used outside of the dinner theater model, by anyone looking to improve their mental health and wellness. Some of these strategies include:

  1. Staying focused on what we can control – for example, we cannot control the weather, but we can control how we react to or prepare for the weather.
  2. Breathing – focusing on your breath and practicing breathing exercises is a proven method for combating stress and refocusing your mind away from stressors.
  3. Practicing gratitude – take time each day to identify something to be thankful for, as this helps promote positive thinking and perspective. For example, being thankful for a sunny day, talking with a friend or spending time with a pet. 
  4. Prioritizing time for ourselves – prioritize “me time” at least once a day by taking the time to do something beneficial for yourself, such as reading, exercising, or watching a favorite TV program.
  5. Embracing resources – utilize free and/or paid professional counseling services, mental health apps or other treatment that aids in your mental wellness, especially if in a crisis situation. For example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 is available for free 24/7 to those experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

You can help support farmers’ mental health and wellness by showing gratitude for their work. A simple “thank you” and recognition of someone’s work can go a long way in showing support.  Continuing to spread awareness and normalizing mental health, wellness and treatment is another way to help farmers and anyone else experiencing mental health issues. Join us in this important cause to save lives of our Kentucky farmers. 

By Janie Heath, Ph.D., dean and Warwick Professor of Nursing in the UK College of Nursing and president of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition; Julie Marfell, D.N.P., associate professor, UK College of Nursing and president-elect of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition; Jennifer Hunter, Ph.D., extension professor and assistant director of family and consumer sciences, UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment; Paul Norrod, Dr.P.H., extension specialist for family and consumer sciences at the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, instructor at the UK College of Nursing, Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition member. 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.