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I Work With Suicidal Farmers. It’s Becoming Too Much to Bear.

Mike Rosmann left seminary to become a clinical psychologist for farmers. Now, as historic flooding ravages the Midwest, he's never been more overwhelmed.

Steve Kowalski

I’m wearing out. Again.

The first time was around Christmas. For several weeks, I just couldn’t write my weekly column for the newspaper. Eventually I published an explanation, and pointed out to readers that I had just exceeded my capacity to deal with things. I had worn myself out, and misjudged what I could handle.

Gradually I recouped. And I’ve been doing pretty well up until maybe in the last week or so. Because things have just mounted on to the point that it’s become harder. So I need to pay attention to what I preach, and that is to manage my own compassion fatigue.

I serve as a counselor for farmers and ranchers. I’m probably on the phone or on email anywhere from 15 to 25 hours a week, seven days a week, trying to respond to requests for help from all around the country. I only take on the most difficult and unresolvable problems that you could ever see among farm people, where depression has not been successfully treated by any kind of medication or psychiatric help. I try to figure out what to do about them, because—well, I don’t know how else to say this, except that I have a lot of experience doing this. It gets me going.

But the two calls I got today—those just wore me out emotionally.

The first came from a lady whose lover—and I say lover, because both he and she are divorced—is a large farmer. And he’s been told by creditors that he has to negotiate the sale or disposal of some of his farm assets, or they’ll shut him down. He said, I will not go to mediation or court, I’ll kill myself before I have to do that. I will lose. I can’t do this. So she called me in desperation. And we conferred several times to figure out what she can do.

The second call came from another farmer. She told me she was desperate, because she didn’t know how to deal with uncertainty in her farming operation. Her email said—I’ll read it to you:

Thank you Dr. Rosmann for getting back to me. I am desperate. The financial strains of the farm are hard to take. Everything is compounded by my emotions....

I experienced a trauma two and a half years ago and I can’t get past it. My brother, with whom I worked on our family farm, committed suicide while I was visiting him in front of me. My husband says I’m changing, and I know I am. It also affects how we interact.

So this woman is looking to me about how to continue, and maybe even gauging whether she needs to join her brother. There is, unfortunately, a contagious effect of suicide.

So that one has taken a lot of time. I responded several times yesterday and tried to call her and did speak for a little bit. She’s pretty brittle. So I contacted another person who lost her husband to suicide, and this woman is willing to talk with the person whose brother ended his life, and to try to offer some hope and options. So I’m hoping we have stopped her from doing something drastic. We just don’t know.

We have a propensity for depression among farm people. We think it is for partly genetic reasons. It stems back to a specific gene on the human genome that predisposes people to overreact to a threat. That gene becomes activated when there is a threat to operating the land, or any threat to losing the assets involved in farming. Other things can cause it too, like the loss of a family member.

The reason I do this job is because, when I was in high school, my classmate whose father was a farmer took his own life. I’m also fourth-generation family farmer, and the second of four boys. I started milking cows by hand in the evenings when I was five years old. The suicide, though, was the one event that made me sit up and think, we’ve got to take a look at this.

I didn’t know anything much about psychology back then. It was a new field. So when I eventually went to the Catholic seminary to become a priest, I took all the psychology courses that were available. Eventually, I dropped out of seminary to become a psychologist.

Mom and Dad were angry. Their dream of having a son become a priest was going to disappear. When I graduated, Dad came, but Mom didn’t. She really only came around entirely after I met Marilyn. Marilyn makes everybody feel good.

Marilyn and I moved to Iowa in 1979, and bought a farm in 1980. We lost it eventually, but the times looked pretty good. I started my psychology practice, and whenever I wasn’t farming, I was taking calls. Eventually I had so many people wanting to see me that I started seeing them in the afternoons and evenings in my office in the Methodist Church in Harlan, Iowa.

Calls and emails to me have always been common. That’s been my life for decades. I usually get anywhere from three to a dozen per a week, and the intensity and need of course varies. About 55 percent of the people who contact me asking for help are men. And that’s a nice thing, because there was a time when men wouldn’t address these kinds of touchy subjects or strong personal feelings with anybody else.

But farmers have been calling me more and more recently because of low farm prices, the prolonged recession in agriculture, and more recently, because of the flooding that is occurring in major river systems in the Midwest. The number of calls has really increased since the beginning of March, when the flooding began.

I think the behavioral health of farm people can be viewed as the canary of their economic well-being, because it’s affected by agricultural prices that farmers can’t control. Besides weather, the entities that control farm prices largely have to do with business interests that lobby heavily at the state and federal levels. If the behavioral health state of farmers is poor, you can bet those lobbies are winning.

And I do blame the Trump administration partly. Farmers are becoming dismayed about the tariffs. He knew that he needed to take care of people who voted for him, and the farm population by and large voted for him. But Trump administration policies fly in the face of what is needed for a long-term solution. I don’t understand why farmers support him, or why many people support him, because of what he’s doing to actually hurt them.

As for the flooding, we need to do something to immediately respond to the crisis. Will FEMA be able to help the flooded areas? Will FEMA pay for things like roads and power lines that are damaged? Will FEMA provide personal assistance for flooded homes or loss of property? Will there be crisis counseling efforts everywhere where they are needed? There’s too much of a piecemeal response to the need. Many of the people impacted by flooding may be able to apply for crop insurance. It will reimburse them for farm input costs, or reimburse them for normal income from crops if they had been planted. But it does not provide income for the household to exist, so the household will need off-farm sources of income to pay for their food and various household expenses.

I try to answer all of the requests I get from farmers and ranchers, because they’re looking for help. But sometimes I have to leave the telephone answering machine on and not answer and get away.

I do try to take care of myself. I go hunting and I go fishing. I have to go fishing a whole lot now that the weather’s warming up. And Marilyn has said that “I’m going with you,” and she promises that we’ll ride in the boat together, and that she will paddle. She’s done that many times in past years. She doesn’t particularly like to fish herself, but she enjoys the outdoors and paddles the canoe. And I catch lots and lots of fish.

My son also called me this morning. He said, “Dad, do you want to go to Oklahoma? We can spend some time shooting turkeys and feral pigs. It’d be good for you as well as me.” I’m inclined to go—we’ll see what comes up. Thank goodness for people like him.

This article is the first in a series from The New Republic highlighting people on the front lines of climate change. Their stories are told in
their own words, edited and arranged for clarity.

A previous version of this story misspelled Mike Rosmann’s last name.