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Rural Health Expert Weighs In On Latest CDC Report Of U.S. Decrease In Life Expectancy Rate


If you live in the United States, you could reasonably expect your life expectancy to go up over time. But federal health officials say that has not been the case for several years. The reasons include a significant rise in overdose deaths and suicides. The suicide rate is the highest in decades. In Minnesota, there's been a 40 percent rise in suicides over the past couple of decades - 40 percent.

Ted Matthews is a psychologist working with Minnesota's Department of Agriculture to provide mental health services to farmers, and he's on the line from Hutchinson, Minn. Good morning, sir.

TED MATTHEWS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's going wrong?

MATTHEWS: Well, there's a lot of incidents going on, but I think probably the most important things with farmers is that if things are going bad, it's not like they can just quit their job and go do something else. It's a way of life for farmers. So if they're fearing losing their farm, they're fearing losing everything about their identity. And that is a very scary thing.

INSKEEP: Stating the obvious, if you're a farmer, if you own your property, you live where you work. Or you may live where you work. You would have to sell everything. It would not be easy to just change jobs, is what you're saying.

MATTHEWS: Well, not only not easy, but you're talking about losing the farm that your father had, your grandfather had, your great-grandfather had. So you're also looking at, what kind of a person would lose that farm? Even though it's not their fault, that's definitely not how they see it.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out what seems to be happening also in rural communities economically. We've had some reporting on our air noting that actually a lot of rural areas are prospering at this point in spite of the image of rural poverty. But is there a kind of economic frustration out there that contributes to people's bleak outlook?

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, the one thing is, there's a difference between what types of farms you have. I mean, there are certain farms that are doing quite well and other farms that aren't doing well at all. And definitely, the dairy industry is just devastating for farmers. And, you know, frankly, I don't think anyone would be a dairy farmer unless they were born into it because it is a very hard job. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. It's the only job I've ever heard of that they consider Saturday, Sunday, once a year, a vacation.

INSKEEP: Where does substance abuse fit into all of this?

MATTHEWS: Well, they're isolated. They get depressed. They don't know where to take it. Husbands and wives - you know, men and women don't communicate the same way. I think that probably will shock most viewers, (laughter). But they don't talk the same way. So men tend to pull away. And they pull further and further away.

And on farms, if they're pulling away, they can truly be isolated, truly isolated, with no one seeing it because their spouses now are working in town, and they keep trying to get them to communicate. And finally, oftentimes, they just simply give up because they've tried to get them to talk about what's going on for a long time, and they just haven't done it.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, do you also find a lot of people who are reluctant to seek out the very kinds of mental health services that you try to provide?

MATTHEWS: Absolutely. But the reason this program exists is because I worked at a crisis intervention a while back, and we never got any farmers to call. And so that was one of the indicators that we had that they're just not being worked with. So that's what developed the program to begin with.

INSKEEP: People want to be self-reliant. Don't want to admit to a weakness.


INSKEEP: Mr. Matthews, thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it.

MATTHEWS: You bet. Thanks for the call.

INSKEEP: Ted Matthews is a psychologist working with Minnesota's Department of Agriculture to provide mental health services to farmers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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