Stress on the farm: Mississippi film sparks conversation about suicide rates within ag community
Published 7:08 pm Sunday, October 1, 2023
The landscape in Washington, D.C., is a stark contrast to Will Gilmer’s everyday view. His 600-acre farm in Sulligent, Alabama, with 400 cattle and row crops grown to feed them is the reason he traveled to the nation’s capital. Gilmer has been vocal about the challenges of managing the family farm that his great-grandfather started 100 years ago.
“The suicide rate on a dairy [farm] is very high. It’s bad. And a ton of that comes from the feeling that ‘I’ve let my family down,’” said Gilmer in the documentary “On the Farm” produced by Mississippi State University’s MSU Films. The film illustrates the stress associated with farming through the personal stories of Gilmer and three other farmers.
Changes in policies and the agricultural industry made it necessary for Gilmer to transition his dairy farm to a beef farm to turn a profit.
“We [farmers] don’t necessarily set the rules of the game, but we have to adjust to them,” Gilmer said.
Earlier this month, Gilmer joined agricultural leaders, organizations, and Mississippi State representatives at USDA headquarters for a farm stress and suicide prevention briefing. According to the National Rural Health Association, farm owners, managers and workers have the highest rates of death due to stress-related diseases. The profession also has the 4th highest rate of suicide of any profession in the U.S.
“Farming is stressful even in the best seasons,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, who attended the screening. “We need to have the tough conversations, break the stigma around mental health and prioritize wellbeing on and off the farm. Mississippi State University’s film ‘On the Farm’ gets the conversation started by helping the public understand the challenges and pressures of farming.”
“The individuals who were interviewed for this film struck me as very brave because they were willing to open up about their personal lives in a way that I think very few farmers would be willing to do,” said MSU Vice President of the Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine Keith Coble, as he introduced the film at the event.
Following the documentary, Gilmer, MSU Associate Professor David Buys, and others participated in a panel discussion.
“Storytelling through film can be a very useful tool for public health education. It grabs people’s minds and hearts, and that can lead to change,” said Buys, who secured funding for the film and is also the Mississippi State Extension Health Specialist.
The film production was funded through the USDA Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, a program that is part of the 2018 Farm Bill and is expected to continue as part of the 2023 Farm Bill.
“This network allows us to check in with farmers and connect them to stress assistance—in other words, taking care of the farmers who take care of us,” said Mary Nelson Robertson, an MSU assistant professor who is actively involved in the project.
MSU is collaborating with Alcorn State University and the University of Tennessee to gain a deeper understanding of the current farming situation directly from farmers and connect them with assistance.
“I’m really proud of the way Mississippi State is stepping up and taking the lead in trying to help people on the farm deal with these issues,” said Gilmer. “We don’t need to keep it bottled up when we have struggles. We need to have an outlet to talk it through, and that’ll help take some of that weight off our shoulders.”
This project is supported by Rural Health and Safety Education Grant funds from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Rural Opioids Technical Assistance Grant funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and USDA NIFA Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network: Southern Region Grant; and Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce grant funds.
Watch “On the Farm” at www.onthefarm.life.