Study of suicide risk factors unique to rural communities examines chemical exposure, diet

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Community gardening spaces, like this one next to the USDA Service Center in Oberlin, Kansas, make fresh produce available locally and provide therapeutic activities in rural communities. Eating a healthy diet and getting involved in gardening have been shown to reduce sleep disturbances, mood disorders and suicide risk, according to Lorann Stallones, a researcher and director of the graduate program at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Lorann Stallones, an epidemiologist and director of the graduate program at the Colorado School of Public Health, studies suicide risk factors, including some that are unique to rural areas, as well as others that are more universal.

One item of keen interest to Stallones is the potential role of exposure to chemicals, in particular organophosphate pesticides.

“Their chemical structure is not that different from chemical warfare agents used during World War II,” she said during a recent webinar hosted by the Colorado AgrAbility Project. “Organophosphate poisoning is associated with cognitive disorders, reduced mental alertness and inability to concentrate.”

The issue is more of a problem in developing countries, whereas the U.S. has reasonably strong restrictions on some of the most dangerous pest control products, she said. However, one consideration is the amount of old pesticide containers stored in barns and sheds that are at risk of being reused for other purposes.

“We need to continue to get that message out,” she said.

The emerging cannabis industry is also creating a new area of study around the effect of chemical interactions within that subset of agricultural production.

“The pesticides are a problem, but so is exposure to the actual plants,” she said. “I think we’ll see more work in that area because of dermatological exposure, similar to what we see with nicotine in tobacco plants.”

A more general area of interest is how diet interacts with mental health to increase the risk for suicidal tendencies.

Specifically, Stallones reviewed new research that looks at the ramifications of poor diet, permeability of the intestinal barrier, disregulated gastroenterology mechanisms and gut microbiota. 

Digestive problems affect immunology and neurochemical levels in the brain, but they can also impair someone’s ability to interact socially or perform cognitive functions, she noted.

“Recent studies link alcohol abuse to those issues as well,” she added.

Some solutions that could be pursued in the public policy arena include improved food labeling, reduced availability of fried or highly processed foods, more education about federal dietary guidelines and incorporating healthy eating into suicide prevention programs.

“Perhaps we could develop nutrition education programs that incorporate understanding of the microbiome and gut-brain connection for psychologists and physicians,” she suggested.

Sleep disturbances are another common complaint that play a role in mood disorders and executive functioning.

Dietary issues are often linked with sleep issues, so that’s another reason to combine dietary education with suicide prevention efforts, she said.

“Some of these interventions are not widely available in rural communities, so we do need to think about how to make these more available in agricultural communities,” she said.

A couple of ways to tackle the need for healthier diets could include providing more support for local food systems and adding gardens to health care clinics and elder care facilities in rural areas, she said.

“There has been work looking at soothing activities like gardening, and patients doing gardening work is very helpful,” she said. “We’ve also seen physicians give a prescription for healthy foods. Most of the research in that area has been done in urban areas, but it’s a really good idea for rural areas as well.”