There has been a great deal of discussion in the media about farmers and mental health in the past few years, not least because of some misinterpreted statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that suggested suicide rates among farmers were five times those of the general population. Farmworkers, on the other hand, have largely flown under the radar.
When you’re buying vegetables from the grocery store, you’re probably not thinking about the people who picked them. Worker health is not on the label.
The vast majority of farmworkers ― 78 percent according to reported estimates ― are migrants. These are the men, women and children in some cases bringing us the food on our plates, completing the bulk of the grueling, thankless tasks on farms across the country.
But due to a variety of factors — from inadequate housing to wage theft and on-the-job harassment — this population is experiencing a mental health crisis, with high rates of anxiety and depression.
A study of 248 women in Latino farmworker families in North Carolina found that 31 percent of participants had significant symptoms of depression, three times the rate of depression among U.S. women generally. Another analysis of nearly 400 agricultural workers, also in North Carolina, found that 50 percent were at risk of alcohol misuse, 17 percent had substantial depressive symptoms and 9 percent had substantial anxiety.
And yet, social stigma prevents many farmworkers from openly discussing mental health. In these communities, “you don’t talk about family problems or personal problems outside the family,” said Brandon Foster, a psychologist with the Family HealthCare Network in Visalia, California ― a nonprofit that started out helping farmworkers but now provides a wide range of services to anyone within the local community.
“Most rural, agricultural-based economic areas have a lot of poverty and for farmworkers it may go back generations,” Foster said. Tulare County, where he works, is one of the biggest farming counties in California and has a 24 percent poverty rate. “That really wears on your sense of hope for the future,” he added.
Suicide rates may represent the most dreaded outcome, the National Farmers Union said in response to the latest CDC data, “but fall well short of painting a complete picture of behavioral health among farmers and farmworkers.”
When suicide does occur in farmworker communities, it takes a significant toll on the families of the victims. “It’s universally devastating within this community,” said Foster. “I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to somebody who said: ‘Yes this happened 15 years ago, we did everything we could to help, and now we’re getting on with our lives.’ Instead, I see a lot of people who say, ‘We still can’t get past it, even years later.’”
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