Why are Europe's farmers struggling with mental health?

World Tuesday 20/February/2024 15:59 PM
By: DW
Why are Europe's farmers struggling with mental health?

Nuremberg: Jürgen Donhauser is no stranger to the hardships of farming life.

His son's farm, located an hour east of Nuremberg, Germany, has been in the family for generations.

But when he took a church pastoral role a few years ago, local farmers started to confide in him about the stress and financial uncertainty of their job. Their stories shocked him.

Some needed alcohol to sleep — to drown out the thoughts of losing everything. "Then there are other stories like...'if it all comes to an end then I'll hang myself on the next tree'," says Donhauser.

To be the one closing a farm that's been in the family for 10, even 15, generations is a crushing load to bear, Donhauser explains. The pressure facing these farmers is "brutal."

Recently, it's been the rage of Europe's protesting farmers that has captured the headlines — encapsulated in images of honking tractor convoys and burning piles of tires outside the European Parliament.

But researchers are documenting the quieter, unseen twin to this story. Their studies suggest many of the pressures driving farmers onto the streets — such as climate policy, regulation, rising costs and falling sale prices — are also harming their mental health.

A survey of over 250 Irish farmers found 20% had suicidal thoughts in the two previous weeks, and nearly 40% reported experiencing moderate to extremely severe stress. In northern Belgium almost half of the 600 farmers surveyed said their job caused mental distress. And in Germany and Austria, more than a quarter reported experiencing burnout — twice the rate seen in the general population.

While the reasons behind mental health struggles are complex, researchers say one big pressure they've identified is climate policy.

An estimated 10% of the EU's greenhouse gases come from the agricultural sector, largely produced by livestock and fertilizers used on the land, which release methane and nitrous oxide. Both are potent gases driving planetary heating. The pesticides used by farmers to maintain crop stability have also come under fire for driving a disastrous loss of biodiversity.

But some farmers say climate policies aimed at reducing these emissions are being enforced in a way that places them in impossible situations.

Sebastian Luhmer, who runs an organic farm south of Bonn, Germany, says EU regulations to reduce fertilizer use by 20% are a headache.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers cause about 5% of global greenhouse gases and also pollute groundwater. But Luhmer says stopping farmers using them during the winter months presents huge logistical challenges to running a farm. That's partly because it shortens the window of opportunity to fertilize even more than changing weather patterns already have.

Luhmer emphasises he isn't against climate policy: that in fact farmers like him are on the frontline of climate change. Drought and increasingly unpredictable seasons are now a reality.

On top of this, he says he's squeezed by rising costs and tightened building regulations that make both planning and profit impossible. His grandfather could buy a tractor from one good harvest, says Luhmer, but nowadays even ten harvests wouldn't be enough.

Many farmers say the plan to phase out agricultural fuel subsidies — which drove thousands of farmers onto the streets in Germany and France — were just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Donhauser says his father's generation of farmers were told after the Second World War to "give it your all so that we no longer have to go hungry," But now he thinks any respect for their role as stewards of the land and food providers has disappeared.

"We're constantly being criticised and it's exhausting," says Donhauser. "Who wants to be called an insect killer, a well poisoner, an animal torturer? Of course, that affects a person."

Farmers have reported struggling with negative media portrayals of their industry.

"They feel that they have been scapegoated in terms of being a headline, as if they are causing the climate crisis disproportionately beyond their role," said Louise McHugh, professor of psychology at University College Dublin and co-lead of the mental health study on Irish farmers.

McHugh says farmers she spoke to as part of her study were motivated to engage in innovative practices and policies that addressed climate change but felt these needed to include their voices and, crucially, be workable on the ground.

The farming sector is perhaps one of the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to adapting to climate change, she adds.

"We need to consider mental health and all the changes that all of us are going to have to face in the coming years — around a very changing world," said McHugh. One place they've already started is by offering modules on mental health to students studying agricultural science.

Ensuring farmers receive more information and have the opportunity for dialogue is also important, according to Franziska Aumer, who is training to be a dairy farmer in Bavaria, Germany.

Aumer is one of three young female founders of Ackerschwestern, which roughly translates as "Farm Sisters." It's an information campaign set up in 2021 to counter-influence far-right politicians trying to, as they saw it, exploit farmer desperation.

It's been a tough road. Since their founding, each of them has known a farmer who's taken their own life.

"In my case, it was a young guy, he was 25-years-old," says Aumer. "He was full of life. He fought for his farm for years."

Franziska says her friend, who was Dutch, had lost his farm like many other farmers in the Netherlands in the wake of stricter regulations on nitrogen emissions.

Despite the tragic stories she has experienced and the challenges facing the sector, Aumer says giving up is not an option for her.  

"I hope that politicians and society will appreciate us and that they'll offer us support so that our profession has a future," says Aumer. "And so that it doesn't break people."