A Lifeline in the Heartland
American farmers die by suicide at nearly twice the rate of the general population. One Iowa farmer-therapist is determined to help them escape the darkness.
American farmers die by suicide at an alarming rate. One Iowa farmer-therapist is determined to help.
SOME FARMERS DISGUISE THEIR SUICIDES AS FARM ACCIDENTS.
It is dark in the workshop, but what light there is streams in patches through the windows. Cobwebs coat the wrenches, the cans of spray paint, and the rungs of an old wooden chair where Matt Peters used to sit. A stereo plays country music, left on by the renter who now uses the shop.
“It smells so good in here,” I say. “Like …”
“Men, working,” finishes Ginnie Peters.
We inhale. “Yes.”
Ginnie pauses at the desk where she found the letter from Matt, her husband, on the night he died.
“My dearest love,” it began, and it continued for pages. “I have torment in my head.”
On the morning of his last day, May 12, 2011, Matt stood in the kitchen of their farmhouse.
“I can’t think,” he told Ginnie. “I feel paralyzed.”
It was planting season, and stress was high. Matt worried about the weather and worked around the clock to get his crop in the ground on time. He hadn’t slept in three nights and was struggling to make decisions.
“I remember thinking, I wish I could pick you up and put you in the car like you do with a child,” Ginnie says. “And then I remember thinking ... and take you where? Who can help me with this? I felt so alone.”
Ginnie felt what she describes as an oppressive sense of dread that intensified as the day wore on. At dinnertime, Matt’s truck was gone, and he wasn’t answering his phone. It was dark when she found the letter. “I just knew,” she says. She called 911 immediately, but by the time the authorities located his truck, Matt had taken his life.
Ginnie describes her husband as strong and determined, funny and loving. They raised two children together. He would burst through the door singing the Mighty Mouse song— “Here I come to save the day!”—and make everyone laugh. He embraced new ideas and was progressive in his farming practices, one of the first in his county to practice no-till, a farming method that does not disturb the soil.
“In everything he did, he wanted to be a giver and not a taker,” she says.
After his death, Ginnie says, she 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 call to an unfamiliar number on the afternoon he died.
When she dialed the number, Mike Rosmann answered.
“My name is Virginia Peters,” she said. “My husband died of suicide on May 12.”
There was a pause on the line. “I have been so worried,” said Mike. “Mrs. Peters, I am so glad you called me.” Matt had made an appointment to talk to Mike again, but when the time came, he hadn’t called.
Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, is a psychologist and one of the nation’s leading experts on the behavioral health of farmers. His mission is to help those in crisis. And for 40 years, he has worked to understand why so many farmers take their own lives.
A 2018 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that male farmers die by suicide at nearly twice the rate of the general population. And this could be an underestimate, as the data did not include several major agricultural states. It’s also hard to capture an accurate number because some farmers disguise their suicides as accidents.
Mike looks like a midwestern Santa Claus—glasses perched on a kind, round face, a head of white hair, and a bushy white moustache. In 1979, he and his wife, Marilyn Rosmann, left their teaching positions at the University of Virginia and bought 190 acres in Harlan, Iowa, near the farm where Mike spent his boyhood. Mike told colleagues, “I need to go take care of farmers, because nobody else does.”
In the 1980s, the family-farm crisis began with the worst agricultural economic forecast since the Great Depression. Market prices crashed. Loans were called in. Interest rates doubled overnight. Farmers were evicted from their land. There were fights at grain elevators, shootings in local banks. Farmers’ suicide rates soared. It was a wrecking ball for rural America.
So Mike moved back home and opened a psychology practice. Marilyn got a job as a nurse. Together, they raised two children and began farming corn, soybeans, oats, and hay and raising purebred cattle, chickens, and turkeys. Mike walks with a slight limp—in 1990, during the oat harvest, he lost four of his toes “in a moment of carelessness” with the grain combine, an event he describes as life-changing.
We are walking through the wet grass toward the cornfield behind his house when he cranes his head. “Hear the calves bellering?” he asks. “They’ve just been weaned.” We stop and listen. The calves sound out in distressed notes, their off-key voices like the cries of prepubescent boys across the field.
Mike began providing free counseling, making referrals for services, and coordinating community events to break down the stigma of mental health issues.
WITH INCOME DOWN NEARLY 50 PERCENT, MORE THAN HALF OF FARMERS LOSE MONEY.
“People just did not deal with revealing their tender feelings. They felt like failures,” he says.
During the height of the farm crisis, telephone hotlines were started in most agricultural states. Every state that had a hotline reported a significant drop in the number of farmingrelated suicides.
In 1999, Mike joined an organization called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH), which referred farmers to affordable behavioral health services. In 2001, he became the director. For 14 years, until its federal funding ended, SSOH fielded more than 250,000 calls from farmers, trained more than 10,000 rural behavioral-health professionals, and provided vouchers for counseling and other resources to some 100,000 farm families. The program became the model for the nationwide Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which was approved as part of the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill but was never funded.
Mike continued to help farmers on his own and is now director of Agriwellness, a nonprofit organization that offers behavioral health services in rural areas. The small outfit is trying to fill a big void. Currently 80 percent of rural residents live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. Farm Aid, the organization founded in response to the 1980s farm crisis, reported a 30 percent increase in calls to its farmer hotline in 2018 over the year before. Hope may be on the horizon, though, as the 2018 Farm Bill included $10 million in annual funding for FRSAN through 2023.
Will that be enough? Unfortunately, today’s bleak agricultural economy looks very much like a new farm crisis. Income for U.S. farmers has declined nearly 50 percent since 2013 and is at its lowest level since 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than half of farmers lose money, and most have second jobs. Some farmers simply can’t afford to keep farming; more than 600 Wisconsin dairy farms shut down last year.
Dr. Nancy Zidek, who practices family medicine in Onaga, Kansas, sees behavioral-health issues frequently in her patients: “The grain prices are low. The gas prices are high. Farmers feel the strain of ‘I’ve got to get this stuff in the field. But if I can’t sell it, I can’t pay for next year’s crop. I can’t pay my loans at the bank off.’ And that impacts the rest of us in a small community, because if the farmers can’t come into town to purchase from the grocery store, the hardware store, the pharmacy, then those people also struggle.”