Suicide on the farm: How one man is trying to save lives

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HARLAN, Iowa (GRAY DC) -- It’s a hot summer morning at Dr. Michael Rosmann’s farm in Harlan, Iowa. Corn is waving in the wind, and there’s a certain sense of stillness.

Dr. Michael Rosmann stands on his farm in Harlan, Iowa. (Source: Gray DC)

Inside, Rosmann is answering emails and calls from farmers with messages like this: “My husband is so depressed, I don’t know what to do.”

Rosmann is a fourth-generation farmer and psychologist, living just a mile and a half from where he grew up. He writes about farming and mental health.

He’s the one struggling farmers go to for help.

“They often call me at all hours of the day or night…but people sometimes want that personal connection,” said Rosmann.

Rosmann tells us between three and 12 farmers reach out to him for help every week. He’s been taking calls like this for years, and he says more people are reaching out now than ever before.

One of those farmers was Matt Peters. He farmed corn and soybeans and was a volunteer firefighter.

Matt took his own life on the same day he reached out to Rosmann for help. His widow, Ginnie, told us she could tell Matt wasn’t himself that day.

“I think we were trying to get help…but I didn’t understand what was really going on,” Ginnie Peters said.

It’s been almost a decade since that day. Matt didn’t get the help he needed, but now, Rosmann offers support to Peters.

“He listens. I think that’s his secret. He listens, and people need that,” Peters said.

Peters and Rosmann say suicide on the farm is a real problem, but the data available makes it difficult to track.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the suicide rate for farmers and ranchers was about 32 for every 100,000 people in 2015.

That rate doesn’t include females, and only used data from 17 states. The CDC doesn’t have high confidence in the rate’s accuracy. They need more data.

So, what’s causing suicide on the farm?

Rosmann said the cause is often linked to low prices for farmers’ products and the politics of trade.

“Uncertainty is a factor that affects farmers. We can’t predict the weather. We’re not able, currently, to predict foreign policy. It’s changing, sometimes, by the day,” said Rosmann.

We brought reports of farmers’ suicides to the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.

“Sometimes you get to the end of the rope, and you don’t know where to go. I know some people are like that right now,” Perdue said.

The Department of Agriculture tells us it’s working to set up the first federally funded program to help farmers in distress.

Support groups, mental health training, and referrals to clinical services will be provided by four regional centers across the country.

The department expects the centers to open before the end of the year.

“I just know that having that available is something that is needed for farmers,” Peters said.

Finally, support for struggling farmers and Rosmann as he works to prevent the next suicide on the farm.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there are resources available to help. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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