On May 12th, 2011, her husband Matt, a farmer, told her “I can’t think. I feel paralyzed.” She recalls that it was planting season and stress was high. Her husband was worried about the weather, working around the clock to get his crop in the ground on time, hadn’t slept in three nights, and was struggling to make decisions.
“Ginnie felt an ‘oppressive sense of dread’ that intensified as the day wore on. At dinnertime, his truck was gone and Matt wasn’t answering his phone. It was dark when she found the letter. ‘I just knew,’ Ginnie says. She called 911 immediately, but by the time the authorities located his truck, Matt had taken his life.She would go on to call the number she found and Dr. Mike Rosmann answered.
After his death, Ginnie began combing through Matt’s things. ‘Every scrap of paper, everything I could find that would make sense of what had happened.’ His phone records showed a 20-minute phone call to an unfamiliar number on the afternoon he died.”1
Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, is a psychologist and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral health experts who has worked for 40 years trying to understand why farmers take their lives at such alarming rates.
More from the Guardian:
“Last year, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people working in agriculture – including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters – take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation. The data suggested that the suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states was nearly five times higher compared with that in the general population.America’s family farm crisis began in the 1980s and was the worst agricultural economic crisis since the Great Depression. Market prices crashed, loans were called in and interest rates doubled overnight. It was at this time that farmers were forced to liquidate what they had. Many were evicted from their land…even land that had been in the family for generations. It was also at this time that the suicide rate jumped.
After the study was released, Newsweek reported that the suicide death rate for farmers was more than double that of military veterans. This, however, could be an underestimate, as the data collected skipped several major agricultural states, including Iowa. Rosmann and other experts add that the farmer suicide rate might be higher, because an unknown number of farmers disguise their suicides as farm accidents.
The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally: an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.”2
And so, in the spring of 1985, thousands of farmers went to Washington DC to protest on the Mall and around the White House. They also marched along Pennsylvania Avenue with hundreds of black crosses, each one with the name of a foreclosure or suicide victim, to the USDA building and drove them into the ground.
It was at that time that Rosmann began providing free counseling, referrals for services, and community events in order to break down the stigma associated with mental health issues. And in most ag states, telephone hotlines were set up. That seemed to do the trick for awhile because every state that had a telephone hotline was able to reduce the number of farming related suicides.
Then, in 1999:
“…Rosmann joined an effort called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH), which began in Wisconsin, and connected uninsured and underinsured farmers in seven midwestern states to affordable behavioral health services. In 2001, Rosmann became the executive director. For 14 years, the organization fielded approximately a half-million telephone calls from farmers, trained over 10,000 rural behavioral health professionals, and provided subsidized behavioral health resources to over 100,000 farm families.In 2014, the federal funding that supported Rosmann’s Sowing Seeds of Hope came to an end and so did the program.
Rosmann’s program proved so successful that it became the model for a nationwide program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). Rosmann and his colleagues were hopeful that farmers would get the federal support they so desperately needed – but though the program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded.
While Senator Tom Harkin and other sympathetic legislators tried to earmark money for the FRSAN, they were outvoted. Rosmann says that several members of the House and Senate – most of them Republicans – ‘were disingenuous’. In an email, Rosmann wrote, ‘They promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.'”3
More from The Guardian:
“Rosmann has developed what he calls the agrarian imperative theory – though he is quick to say it sits on the shoulders of other psychologists. “People engaged in farming,” he explains, ‘have a strong urge to supply essentials for human life, such as food and materials for clothing, shelter and fuel, and to hang on to their land and other resources needed to produce these goods at all costs.’Net farm income has been in decline since 2013 and for 2017, median farm income is projected to be negative $1,325. As if that’s not bad enough, without parity (a minimum price floor for farm products) most commodity prices remain below the cost of production (meaning farmers can’t buy the goods that what they grow creates).
When farmers can’t fulfill this instinctual purpose, they feel despair. Thus, within the theory lies an important paradox: the drive that makes a farmer successful is the same that exacerbates failure, sometimes to the point of suicide. In an article, Rosmann wrote that the agrarian imperative theory ‘is a plausible explanation of the motivations of farmers to be agricultural producers and to sometimes end their lives’.”4
Rosmann says they have learned how to better support farmers since the farm crisis of the 1980s. But just as important is that experts be “versed in the reality and language of agriculture.”5
Affordable therapy is critical and inexpensive to fund – Rosmann says many issues can be resolved in fewer than five sessions, which he compares to an Employee Assistance Program. Medical providers need to be educated about physical and behavioral health vulnerabilities in agricultural populations, an effort Rosmann is working on with colleagues.
The truth is that though the work may be hard, it’s vital and it’s the work the farmers- many with farming in their blood going back generations- want to do. But it’s not just that. The well being of farmers is woven into the health of the rural communities that surround them; if they can’t sell what they grow they can’t pay their loans and that directly impacts the rest of the community.