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Farmer mental health deserves your attention

Agricultural company executive shares a personal story.

Farmers typically have a reputation as stoic and rugged individuals seemingly impervious to all that ails the world. In reality, they’re more vulnerable to the effects of stress than many people. In some cases, this can lead to the unthinkable – suicide. Below, Jeff Rowe, global president for Syngenta Seeds, who lives in Illinois with his family where he still farms, shares a personal story  on the eve of World Mental Health Day.

Most of us have heard a statistic at some point about the tragically high suicide rates in the farming industry. It might be hard to personalize numbers. But two years ago, those numbers became very personal to me and my family.

In the spring of 2018, I received a devastating phone call – my brother-in-law took his own life. He was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and a farmer. I cannot possibly describe the emotional impact Gary’s death has had on so many people – especially on my young niece and nephew, and my sister. 

My family farm operation is similar to many other farms in the Midwest. It involves many family members working together. If there is a job to be done or something to be fixed (which there almost always is), everyone chips in to get it done. There is a closeness and special bond that develops when running a family farm. Gary was one of the hardest working people I have ever met. He was an exceptional mechanic, could weld anything, and was a great operator. He was also quick to help others. Sadly, he did not get the help that he needed. 

His story is far too common in farming. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that farmers are more likely to die by suicide than in many other occupations. Suicide rates have increased by 40% in the last two decades. Multiple studies show that farmer suicide rates range from two to five times higher than the national average in recent years. Those are sobering facts that tell an alarming truth: We have a mental health crisis in the farming industry.

And that’s why a day like tomorrow presents an important moment to reflect. 

On October 10, the World Health Organization observes World Mental Health Day, focusing on raising awareness and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health issues around the world. With the staggering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a more important moment to spotlight mental health issues in our industry.

Suffering in Silence

Even before the world had heard of COVID-19 or social distancing, farmers’ mental health was already a significant issue. From unpredictable weather to volatile economic conditions in the industry, farmers around the world have been dealing with extremely challenging conditions impacting their livelihood for years.

If mental health and suicide are such critical issues facing farmers, why are we not talking about it more openly? Too many people are still suffering in silence only for those who care about them to find out too late. 

Mental health can be a difficult subject to talk about. Oftentimes people struggling with mental health problems will try to conceal their pain for fear of perception and the stigma of being labeled as someone who is weak. The reality is that there is strength in being open and asking for help when you need help. When you ask for help, you quickly find family members, fellow farmers, community members, and others ready to support you.

More support and openness around this topic are essential. One of the first steps is brightening the spotlight around mental health issues in the industry. I will admit, I had been hesitant to share my family’s story in the past. I realize, however, by sharing my story, others may be willing to come forward and share their stories or engage in more discussion around this difficult topic. When they do, our industry will be here to support them.

Working Together

Going forward, farmers will be needed more than ever to feed our growing population. Fortunately, Syngenta is in a position to do more. We are making a monetary donation to the Farm Crisis Center to support its important work with farmers across the country.

Working together we might be able to prevent tragedies like what happened with my brother-in-law and many other farmers who become statistics every year. After all, those statistics are people who were cared for and loved. Please join me in continuing to advance the conversation on farmer mental health.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues, please contact:

  • Farm Aid Hotline, 800-FARM-AID (327-6243) Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255) 24/7

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