Suicide rate on the rise: Rural men aged 25-64 found to be among most vulnerable in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. — While it seems progress has been made in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health, the numbers aren’t showing it in rural Wisconsin communities where suicide rates are still on the rise.

The most recent Wisconsin Department of Health Services report on suicide prevention found the state’s suicide rate jumped 40% from 2000 to 2017. Within that, rural men between the ages of 25 and 64 are among the most vulnerable to suicide. Those working to prevent suicide in rural communities said that while the data is clear, the reason for it is complex.

“It’s business, it’s family, and then you have all those changing things in their businesses that make it really difficult,” said Karen Endres, who coordinates the wellness program in Wisconsin’s Farm Center, a state organization working to address rural mental health.

Endres said those efforts are more than just additional outreach programs or clinics, but also making sure those living in rural areas feel understood.

“Those in need can be connected to a stress counselor who can help them and who understands rural problems and what it’s like to be in a rural, small-town community,” Endres said. “If a counselor goes in and says to someone, ‘Well, let’s work on your work-life balance,’ a farmer is not going to know what that is because their work is their life; it’s their culture.”

Endres explained that a lifestyle based on fluctuating markets, uncertain consumer demand, lack of labor, and the pressure of oftentimes running a generational family business is what’s behind such a heightened suicide risk among rural men.

“Farmers are only 1% of our population in Wisconsin but 2% of our suicide rate, so that’s a big concern,” Endres said.

That concern is already being addressed on the statewide level and is. Last month, SSM Health opened Wisconsin’s first-ever day stabilization unit. Based at its hospital in Fond du Lac County, the clinic reaches vulnerable rural communities with a patient base in any direction, up to 150 miles away. It’s a way of providing help in the short term, so those in need don’t have to worry about being away from the responsibilities that come with living and working in a rural area.

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But returning to the fields doesn’t always mean a return to clear mental health.

“In many cases, though people can’t be admitted into a hospital, they face great uncertainties, returning home without guidance and important resources set in place for them,” said Tiffany Parker, the director of inpatient behavioral health, addiction services, and domestic violence services with SSM Health in Fond du Lac.

To continue offering assistance any time of day, the Wisconsin Farm Center also offers a 24/7 helpline, tele-counseling, in-person counseling vouchers, and even an online farmer support group for people all across the state to connect with one another.

It’s a big push, and it’s one that’s working: Endres reported that counseling voucher utilization reached an all-time high last year, alongside a major spike in calls to the 24/7 helpline. Because the need for these services is clear, the Farm Center’s support is still continuing to adapt and grow its resources.

“As we see trends or changes, we have a plan going out over the next year where we’re talking about specific topics that we see a real concern,” Endres said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues or considering suicide, there are resources available to help. Calling 988 nationwide will connect you to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In Dane County, Journey Mental Health Center has a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 608-280-2600.

For more information on how to get free, confidential help from other resources in Wisconsin, click or tap here.