Men in rural areas may be prone to suicide during times of drought, according to Australian researchers who analyzed almost 40 years of that country’s rainfall records.
In addition to the financial stress of failed crops, environmental degradation caused by extended dry spells also can be psychologically harmful, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Among men ages 30 to 49 who live in farming communities, droughts were associated with a 15 percent increase in the relative risk of suicide, the research found.
Suicide is the 14th most-common cause of death in Australia. In the U.S., it’s the 11th most-common, according to the National Institutes of Health. Identifying periods of risk may aid prevention and help direct resources to areas in need, the authors wrote. Rural communities often have less access to mental-health care than urban ones, said Christian Burgess, director of the Disaster Distress Helpline, in New York.
“With these prolonged disasters, effects can be subtle and accumulate over time,” Burgess said in a telephone interview. He wasn’t involved in the study. “Depression, anxiety and suicide, they’re all at greater risks. A lot of the distress is from economic losses compounded by an already poor economy.”
The worst drought in 50 years across the U.S. Midwest has damaged crops and hurt livestock this summer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cut its forecast for domestic grain production for a second straight month on Aug. 10. Almost 70 percent of the Midwest, where farmers harvested 60 percent of last year’s crop, had moderate to exceptional drought conditions as of Aug. 7, according to the government-funded U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Many farming communities are close-knit, so the effects of the drought may extend beyond farmers to their families, Burgess said. In addition, one death by suicide in a community may ripple through the survivors, causing more anxiety and distress.
While the study, which looked at records of the Australian state New South Wales from 1920 to 2007, found droughts increased suicide rates for males, the risk for women fell. One explanation for this finding may be that rural women might have access to more diverse social support networks, the authors wrote.
The study found a suicide peak in the spring, which in Australia lasts from September to November. Spring in temperate climates has been shown to increase the number of suicides, according to background information in the article, led by Ivan Hanigan, a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra.