Most male farmer suicide not caused by mental health issues

New research on male suicide amongst Australian farmers has found that around 4 out of 5 (78%) of suicides studied were linked to situational distress with 1 in 5 (22%) characterised by longstanding mental health issues.

The Study by the Australian Institute of Suicide Research and Prevention found that the two most common situational factors that male farmers who died by suicide were dealing with were relationship issues and financial issues.

Relationship Issues

Half of the male farmers who died by suicide had experienced a relationship breakdown, with 56% of these men experiencing an acute stress response to relationship breakdown and child custody or paternity problems. Men in this group were between 30 and 58 years old.

According to the authors of the report, recent relationship breakdown is said to be central to understanding suicidal process in Australian males. They argue that recent separation from a partner entails a significant acute risk factors of subsequent suicidal behaviour, particularly for men, with separation and divorce thought to cause shame and anger, threatening masculinity and traditional gender roles and leading to acute stress, depression and substance abuse.

Separation and divorce also impacts the male role as a father, which may be limited or removed, say the authors. Recent relationship breakup can also lead to social isolation, especially in rural and remote areas and also to feeling of burden to family and friends, factors which are thought to increase suicide risk.

Financial Issues

Around three out of ten (28%) of the male farmers who died by suicide were experiencing financial difficulties. Of these, 80% were facing pending retirement. According to the report, this groups were experiencing an acute stress response to situational factors, related to recent long work hours, pending farm duties as well as farm related issues experienced in the years prior to death, such as mill closure, deregulation of milk and crop disease).

Ongoing Mental Health Issues

 Around one in five (22%) male farmers in the study experienced long-term mental health problems, characterised by evidence of an established psychiatric disorder. An additional shared feature was exposure to suicide on at least two occasions across the lifespan as shown. Suicidality in this group was protracted over many years and men had contact with the mental health treatment during adulthood with three quarters of the men in this group verbally communicating intent to die by suicide prior to their death.

 Alcohol and Drug Issues

Excessive us of alcohol and/or drug abuse was also a common factor, particularly for the group of men dealing with relationship issues, with abuse or dependency reported in 78% of this group.

Recommendations

According to the authors, this study suggests that male farmers require targeted prevention, assessment and treatment strategies in their rural and regional communities across the lifespan from boarding school to planning retirement and succession planning.

Strategies the authors recommend considering include: restricting access to means particularly on presentation to a health professional, relationship and family counselling, financial counselling (particularly retirement preparation), public health and stigma

reduction campaigns particularly around understanding the symptoms of depression and anxiety and the association between physical and mental health and mental illness. In addition to the community related activities, the authors say there is also a need for national policies, which could provide financial advice and support dignified financial exit, especially for older farmers, but also support training and new businesses

Conclusion

In conclusion, the authors say: “For most farmers, intent was not communicated, nor was there previous suicide exposure, instead the process was acute, in response to two salient situational stressors of romantic relationship breakdown for middle aged men, and for older men, financial difficulties pending retirement. For other farmers, who experienced many years of a psychiatric disorder, the process was protracted.”

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