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NYS Senator Sponsors Bill To Address Rural Suicides

Two farmers feeding cows
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Public Domain

A New York state Senator from the Hudson Valley has introduced legislation to help stem suicides in rural areas, which have been increasing. Senator Jen Metzger wants to improve access to prevention tools and resources, and create a council that would come up with a plan to address the problem.

First-term state Senator Jen Metzger has introduced a bill that would establish a rural suicide prevention council.

“Suicide rates in New York state have increased by 30 percent since 1999 and almost of this has been in our upstate and rural communities,” Metzger says. “In fact, there are 10 counties that have suicide rates higher than the national average, all of them rural, and that includes Delaware County, which, parts of which I represent, which has the third highest suicide rate in the state.”

Metzger is a Democrat whose 42nd District also includes portions of Orange and Ulster Counties and all of Sullivan County. She points to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released data in 2017 from 2001-2015 showing that rural counties had higher rates of suicide than metropolitan counties. In releasing the statistics, the CDC said suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and there were more than half a million suicides during the 2001–2015 study period.

“It’s been attributed to such factors as a lack of access to mental health resources and care. Social isolation plays a big role and farmers, especially our dairy farms have been in real crisis with very low, falling and low dairy prices, and it’s been, this has caused a great deal of stress,” says Metzger. “But, as I said, this is both, it’s in New York and nationally.”

“We were very appreciative the attention that the senator’s putting with this legislation, and we issued a memo of support,” says Ammerman.

Steve Ammerman is spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau.

“It’s been a trying time for agriculture,” Ammerman says. “New York Farm Bureau sponsored a series of sessions across the state with New York FarmNet just to get farmers talking about this, getting people who work with farmers to look for signs of stress and depression and potential suicide risks because the economy is that difficult right now for farmers and the stresses that farmers face is high.”

Metzger, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, says farmers in the third and fourth generations of their families are feeling the stress.

“It’s not just dairy farmers; it’s not just agriculture,” Metzger says. “It’s our rural communities generally.”

The council her bill seeks to create would consist of 12 appointed members, who would meet at least twice a year and issue a report within a year.

“The report will examine causes and conditions related to the rise in rural suicides. It will look at disparities in access to mental health care, which is really important because we want to make sure that, as a state, we’re spending those resources that we do spend in the right places and identify any new needs. That would be extremely important,” Metzger says. “And we want the council to create a plan to identify persons at risk for suicide, particularly within certain professions, including farming and agriculture, and just overall to increase access to and delivery of suicide of, prevention care, etcetera.

The Farm Bureau’s Ammerman is hopeful such a council could look at risk factors and identify problem areas in rural communities and come up with a plan to reduce the number of suicides plaguing rural New York.

“In the past few years, we’ve definitely heard, anecdotally, more stories. I’m not saying that there’s widespread suicides happening on our farms, but it’s a concern,” says Ammerman. “And any time stress levels rise — the economy is struggling for so many farmers for this long of a period of time, combined with the fact that it’s rural areas, services may not be as available, farmers themselves are very private people, they’re very proud people,  and have a hard time reaching out and saying I need help — any time the risks are there, we really need to be paying attention to the issue and making sure that help is available, and this legislation will help do that.”

Democratic Senator Rachel May of the 53rd District is a co-sponsor. Democrat Did Barrett plans to sponsor the bill in the Assembly, as she did last year.

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