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Deep dive: We need to talk about farmers and mental health

Kathleen Schuster
February 8, 2024

Recent studies say mental health is in decline among farmers, and they say climate policy is partially to blame. We spoke with German farmers and experts from different EU countries to find out more. And what they had to say was eye-opening.


Perhaps you've seen coverage of the recent farmers' protests in Germany, Belgium and France. The events got our team thinking about what else could be going on in the world of farming to fuel backlash across the EU.

Research that's come out in the past few years has pointed to a rise in the rates of burnout, depression and anxiety among farmers, and experts warn these symptoms could also spell a rise in the risk of suicide.

But what's more astonishing is what farmers said was causing them the most stress. At the top of the list was agricultural policy, especially related to climate change. 

We reached out to farmers in Germany and experts behind these studies to find out more. 

You can listen to this episode by clicking on the Living Planet picture above. 

Episode transcript


Lies Messely: … we received some signals both from other European countries as well as the United States, as well as from organizations in Flanders that something is happening with farmers…

Louise McHugh: … 23.4% of farmers were considered at risk for suicide…

Maria Roth: … 27% burnout rate …

Lies Messely: … 49% of the farmers in Flanders indicate that their job gives them mental distress…the main stressor that we have identified …

Louise McHugh: … the first one was …

Maria Roth: … agricultural politics…

Lies Messely: … administration and regulation…

Louise McHugh: … government policies to reduce climate change…


Those are the voices of three researchers who’ve been asking themselves why mental health among European farmers appears to be getting worse.

Louise McHugh: Hi, I'm Louise McHugh …

Lies Messely: My name is Liz Messely … 

Maria Roth: My name is Maria Roth…

Louise McHugh: …  I am a professor of psychology at University College Dublin..

Lies Messely: … and I'm a senior researcher at the Social Sciences Unit of ILVO..

Louise McHugh: … we looked at a nationwide survey of the issue around suicide risk, mental health d acceptability of interventions for the farming community in Ireland…

Maria Roth: … I decided to make the first study in Germany and Austria about the rates of burnout, anxiety and depression in farmers…

They say one big problem they’ve identified is climate policy. These are the laws that are supposed to reduce emissions in the farming sector. But they say the way these laws are being enforced is actually putting farmers in impossible situations.


This is Living Planet. I’m Kathleen Schuster. And in this episode, we’re going to hear from German farmers about their experiences with climate policy and mental health. And we’ll also hear more from those researchers a bit later on about what else they found out about European farmers.

Music crossfades into sound of cows

The first stop is an organic farm just south of our studio in Bonn. It’s run by a man named Sebastian Luhmer.

When I asked him how climate policy is affecting him, he told me to hop in the car because he wanted to show me a 200-ton pile of manure.  

You’ll understand why in a minute.

ATMO Sound of car door opening, closing, ignition – driving across farm

Sebastian (in car): It's a farm car. It's always dirty. Look like my spare parts came. Monday I’m receiving new chickens for one of my stables.

Kathleen: How many?

Sebastian: In this stable we have 650, sorry 350, 650 in total with two stables. Which is a small number of chickens now in these times. I think my grandfather had like 10 to 20 chickens.


Kathleen: Sebastian took over the family farm back in 2018. Chickens are the moneymaker. He also raises beef cattle –

Sebastian: Where we have been driving across right now has been the food for the cows. I would not like to do it in this way in the dirty way on the field, but I cannot afford to build the  stores for the for the grass keeping … FADE UNDER NARRATION

Kathleen: Sebastian says he’d like to build another place to store the cows’ food but tighter rules would mean stricter building codes, and in the end paying even more money.

Sebastian: For the number of cows I have right now, it would be about 100 to €150,000 just to feed some cows which bring me, like all in all, the whole year like, €0, if we add the time I spent on that, if I would pay me for the work I do with the cows, it just wouldn’t work.

Kathleen: He says raising cows doesn’t make a lot of financial sense for him. But without them, he has no manure for his fields.

The manure has also become a headache, though. Over the past few years, regulations for fertilizers have gotten stricter. To meet EU targets, member states need to reduce fertilizer use by 20% by the end of the decade . That’s because nitrogen-based fertilizers cause about 5% of global greenhouse gases and can also pollute the groundwater.

Sebastian says the regulations don’t completely make sense, though.

ATMO Car slowing down to a stop

Kathleen: That’s a lot of manure!

Sebastian: laughs

ATMO  Getting out of car

Kathleen: Ok, so what are we looking at here?

Sebastian:  Yeah, we are looking at the manure from the past eight weeks.

Kathleen: This is manure from 8 weeks.

Sebastian: Eight weeks since the beginning of the beginning of December, it's about 150 to 200 tons. […] the problem is not the manure itself, it’s like the most sustainable fertilizer we have … FADE UNDER…. 


Kathleen: Essentially, stricter rules on fertilizers have meant farmers can’t put manure down on the fields from December to mid-January. The reason being, for one, the soil can’t immediately absorb the nutrients if the ground is frozen. That can lead to nutrients being washed away. Worst-case scenario: the runoff pollutes lower lying areas or a water source.

Sebastian: So we have to wait until the ground is not frozen, but if the ground is no more frozen, it's usually that wet that we cannot drive on that …

Kathleen: Sebastian says this is a problem. For one, driving over frozen ground is better because it prevents compressing the soil too much and damaging it and its ecosystem. Another problem is this rule shortens the window of time to fertilize even more than shifting weather patterns already have – so his crop yields are lowered even more. And in his opinion, unnecessarily.

Kathleen:  And it makes it more difficult than you in terms of the logistics of when you can like how you care for your fields and.

Is there any other way to to do this that satisfies both groups?

Sebastian: I think the… take down those regulations (laughs quickly)

Kathleen: Take down the regulations is what you’ll hear from a lot of farmers here in Europe.


That’s not to say Sebastian is against climate policy. He isn’t. He’s on the frontlines of climate change just like all the other farmers. During his first three years, his farm was hit by drought and he says the seasons have become so unpredictable, that he can’t plan the way his father and grandfather used to.

He says his grandfather was able to buy a tractor from one good harvest. Nowadays Sebastian could have 10 good harvests and that still wouldn’t bring in enough money for a new tractor. Not even taking into account the beef and eggs he sells.

And incidentally, it’s where these two problems meet – a lack of predictability and what farmers see as overregulation – that’s thrown many of them into a tailspin.

One person who’s been researching this is a woman named Lies Messely. She’s a senior researcher at a Belgian organization called ILVO. Which stands for:

Lies Messely: Instituut voor Landbouw-, Visserij- en Voedingsonderzoek

Kathleen: which, mercifully, translates in English to the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Lies: So we started our study into farmers’ wellbeing and stress in 2018


Her team was one of several in an EU-backed group called FARMWELL looking at this problem.

They started researching the mental health of farmers specifically in Flanders, which is the Flemish-speaking region of northern Belgium. Nearly half of the land there is used for farming.

They surveyed more than 600 farmers and did focus groups with about 90 of them between 2018 and 2021.

They found almost half the farmers were suffering from mental distress.

Lies: And the main stressor that we have identified is related to administration and regulation. The fact that it changes a lot. that there are different regulations from Europe, but also from the Belgian government related to food security, from the Flemish government related to water quality, a lot of different topics and all these regulations land at the farm level and the farmer has to deal with it and comply with a lot of regulations and administrations. That's a very big stress factor for farmers in Flanders.

But farming has always been a tough job that involves hard labor and financial uncertainty. So why are mental health problems on the rise?

Lies says she and her team noticed the farmers they spoke with had a particular vulnerability: they didn’t know how to talk about their problems.

Lies: We heard the reasons like, yeah, in our family, we don't talk about problems. Our problems, it's our own responsibility. We don't need other people to to handle it or to solve it we will do it ourselves. […]On another level, more on the sector, the farming sector level, there we see that there is this macho culture is a bit how we have called it. You don't share your problems with your colleagues. Some farmers also indicate that your colleagues are also your competitors so if they know that you're in trouble then your position is getting weaker but for sure there's also this taboo that to talk about your feelings and and mental issues it's very difficult even within farming organizations for a long time it has been um not talked about, or it was a topic for the women.

Interestingly, another woman named Maria Roth who was also researching this topic over in Austria around the same time, can attest to this. She’s from a family of dairy farmers in Bavaria and when she was getting her Master’s in psychology, she happened to get into a conversation (RAISE ATMO CAR) with her brother, a farmer, that would change everything for her.

Maria Roth: I was in the car with my brother and we were just chatting and Then he told me that he read in a farming newspaper about the very high suicide rate in farmers, and he asked me if I could explain him why these rates are so high, because I'm a psychologist and I was like, oh, I don't know. I've never heard of that.  And he was a bit.  I don't know, you just wondered how can it be that you've been studying psychology for five years and never heard of this? 

It turns out one of the reasons she’d never really heard about this was because there didn’t appear to be any literature on farmers and mental health or suicide rates published in Germany or Austria. Only literature from other countries.

So, she decided to make it the topic of her Master’s thesis. She wanted to find out how common burnout, anxiety and depression were among these farmers.

Maria Roth: (And in the beginning I was very…I was not really sure if I would be able to find 400 farmers because the usual number of participants you have to find is around 30 to maximum 50. So my colleagues at university for their master theses. 

They had to find 30 to 50 and for me it was 400. Like, OK, I don't know how, but I will try. And I asked every farmer I know to participate, and I posted the link to the study on my or to the survey on my personal Facebook page  And then it went kind of viral because in the end, I got around 4,000 participants. It was like three 3,860 or something. 

She found that more than a quarter of the people she surveyed were suffering from burnout.  That’s twice the rate seen in the general population.

Maria Roth: I live in a very rural environment where everybody knows everything and.  I know I personally know farmers who are really struggling. 

So that is new but. I kind of see it through different eyes now because earlier I had more like the depression of the impression. OK, it's just this person who is struggling because it's this person.  And now I think, OK, it's this person who's struggling, but maybe. 50% of the cost of this is the job she's doing. And if she was doing a different job, she wouldn't struggle. So it's now more linked to the fact of being a farmer.

Maria is in the process of becoming a therapist and might end up specializing in therapy for farmers. But there isn’t exactly a track for that in Germany at the moment.

Lies Messely from ILVO, who we heard from a bit earlier, is also working to expand the resources available both in terms of training therapists and getting the word out to farmers. The Flemish Departments of Agriculture and Public health and family welfare are working on this.

One credential that’s absolutely necessary, she says, is a therapist needs to understand farming. Things like how farmers usually can’t take a sick day, much less go out with friends or take a vacation. It’s all about trust and feeling understood.

I wanted to talk to one of these therapists to get some insights, but they were difficult to track down. I did however find a man named Jürgen Donhauser about an hour east of Nurenberg who’s a farmer and a deacon. And even though he knew the hardships of farming life before he took on a pastoral role a few years ago, he says he’s been shocked by what people began telling him.

Jürgen: I hear things like, Jürgen, if I don’t drink half a bottle of Jägermeister in the evening, then I can’t go to bed because I can’t shut off my brain. I just lay there awake, my thoughts swirling. I’m afraid I’ll lose everything. And then he can sleep a bit, but it’s not a deep sleep because of the alcohol. Then there are other stories like, Jürgen, if it all comes to an end, then I’ll hang myself on the next tree. And that’s of course a more extreme case.

He agrees that talking through these problems is vital, and that often a therapist is necessary. He sees other reasons, though, why farmers are having so much trouble coping.

Jürgen: Some of these farms have been around for 10, 12, 15 generations. So, knowing that someone once started this farm and for the past 15 generations, each generation managed to keep things running and now he’s the one who’s going to have to shut it down for good because it’s no longer working. The pressure these people are facing is brutal. 

He knows this from his own family. His grandfather started the farm, and Jürgen handed it on to his own oldest son a few years ago.

They mainly raise pigs and it was around the time he handed the farm over that they needed to invest roughly 250,000 euros to update their pig pen to meet new animal protection guidelines.

Before the law passed, there were different numbers floating around about how big the stalls for pregnant sows needed to be and they were advised to plan for 6 square meters to be on the safe side.

But once the law passed, it actually required 6.5 square meters of space. Now they have until April to submit their plans for changes. And his son doesn’t know if it’s worth the investment. His second oldest son has already thrown in the towel.

Jürgen: The first reason is the inability to plan. Today if I build a stall according to animal protection guidelines that costs between 250,000 and 300,000 euros, I can’t count on using it long enough to pay it off. What young person would be ready to invest. The trust is simply gone, and that’s why no one is investing right now.

Jürgen says this is just one in a long line of changes over the past 20 years that’s made it hard on them to keep up financially and emotionally. He says people aren’t willing to pay fair prices, costs are rising and updates are nearly impossible to afford. 

Jürgen: Of course, it affects me. And I feel even worse for my father who’s 87. He’s from the generation that was told after the war, we don’t want any more wars, we don’t want any more starvation – farmers, give it your all so that we no longer have to go hungry. And he did everything he could to run his farm that way. He doesn’t understand any of this. Instead of thanks and respect for what farmers have done for us, and what they still do for us. But instead of a pat on the shoulder and admiration or at least recognition, we’re constantly being criticized and it’s exhausting. Who wants to be called an insect killer, a well poisoner, an animal torturer? Of course that affects a person.

That last point Jürgen Donhauser made about feeling like farmers are portrayed as killing nature is one that echoes throughout the studies carried out by Lies Messely and Maria Roth.

It’s true that bad news about the environment has made headlines in recent years. For example, that the agricultural sector causes 10% of the EU’s greenhouse gases, which is only slightly lower than the worldwide average.

Or that pesticides that help maintain crop stability are driving a disastrous loss of biodiversity.

The farmers I spoke with were quick to point out that what gets lost in this message is the role of the farmer as a steward of the land. As people who are so passionate about their jobs that some even take on outside work to keep running family farms that don’t bring in any money.

They also say coverage of about recent protests over subsidy cuts misses the point. The cuts are just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Professor Louise McHugh teaches psychology at University College of Dublin and co-lead a nationwide survey of over 250 Irish farmers and also carried out focus groups with funding from the National Organization for Suicide Prevention.

She said the negative coverage is also being felt by Irish farmers.

McHugh: When we interviewed the farmers individually and tried to drill into this further and what was coming out is that they feel that they have been scapegoated in terms of being a headline, as if they are causing the climate crisis disproportionately beyond what their role. Is and and that they're all very interested or that they're certainly interested in engaging in innovative practices around uh, climate change, but that if the policies that have been introduced don't include their voice and aren't realistic or sensible in terms of practicalities on the ground and that isn't workable.

She says they’re now receiving funding from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture to find a scalable response.

McHugh: So I think you know definitely there is an increasing acknowledgement among policymakers that the farming community have been particularly squeezed on this issue around climate change in a way that, you know, we need to manage that as it is a time when all of us are going to need to change. ur practices around climate change and but the farming community might be one of the first groups to have really bumped against this, and so we need. The we need to mind them, and we need to be considered and 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.

One place they’ve already started, and incidentally, the way she got involved in this research, is by offering modules on mental health to students studying agricultural science. She says the idea for that came from the students who saw what their families were going through on the farm.

Beyond mental health support, there also seems to be a need for civil discourse about these problems.

Here in Germany, a young woman named Franziska Aumer, who knows Jürgen Donhauser from her time with the Bavarian farmers association, started an information campaign for farmers along with two other young women.

They call themselves “Ackerschwestern” which translates roughly to "farm sisters."

They started their website back during the last German elections in 2021. She says they wanted to counter the influence from politicians with extreme views who were trying to profit off of the farmers’ desperation. The three young women just want to get fact-based information to farmers and encourage dialogue.

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

Franziska: In my case, it was a young guy, he was 25 years old. I met him through the volunteer work in the agriculture sector and he was really active, he was full of life. He fought for his farm for years and in the end he couldn’t cope when it turned out it was all in vain, because he was Dutch and they stripped him of his permit. And he made his decision the same day he got the news.

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.

The Dutch government is currently buying out farms to the tune of 1.5€billion. Roughly 3,000 farmers are expected to be eligible for these buyouts.

Unfortunately, like with other cases of suicide, in the end it’s not always possible to know the exact reason behind the death. And in this case, I only have Franziska’s account of the story.

But what’s been striking about the research conducted by Lies Messely, Maria Roth and Louise McHugh is how high the stress levels are among farmers right now.  

In Ireland, Louise McHugh said over 20% of the farmers they surveyed had suicidal thoughts over the past two weeks. They  also found that nearly 40% of farmers were experiencing moderate to extremely severe stress, which is associated with a higher risk of suicide.

A sign of hope, though, is that all of the researchers found that the overwhelming response from farmers was positive when they were given the chance to talk.

Here’s Lies Messely again.

Lies Messely: That was really something that we didn't expect, actually. When we started announcing our research on stress and well-being, people who are very familiar with farming sector said, you will never find somebody who will want to talk about it. That's not even in personal, in an individual talk, but In group discussions, it will not be possible, but we actually found the contrary. Um, even in groups that were only male, some quite personal stuff was shared.

There was a farmer who had just lost his father and he was still struggling how to cope with it and also how to continue with the farm. And then during that talk, another farmer shared his story, also having lost his father at a young age. recognizing the same difficulties and sharing how he has dealt with it. And there was room for emotions and for very sensitive topics as well. And we finished every focus group discussion with a last tour of the table asking, what did you think about it? What do you take home? And a lot of times we heard, it was so good to be able to talk about this, to share with my colleagues  what is going on and to realize I'm not alone. I'm not alone.

I want to turn back to Franziska again very briefly. What’s interesting about her story is that she actually doesn’t have to farm. She’s from a farming family, but she had originally completed her formal training in computers and electronics and then decided her passion was farming after all. She’s just about to finish her training as a dairy farmer.

But after telling me about all of the hardships farming face right now, why is she going ahead with it?

Franziska: Giving up is not an option. Farmers still exist in Germany and I hope that politicians and society will appreciate us and that they’ll offer us support so that our profession has a future and so that it doesn’t break people.

We farmers work in and together with nature. It doesn’t which region we live and work it, we can already feel the effects of climate change. Of course we have interest in genuine climate protection, in climate protection that leads to measures you can see and feel. But we also know because we work in the cycles of nature every day that these types of changes take time. We think in cycles, we think along with nature and this kind of change can’t be forced.

We’ll be right back.

PROMO Don’t Drink the Milk 00’30

This episode of Living Planet was produced by me, Kathleen Schuster and edited by Neil King. Our sound engineers were Ziad Abu Sleiman and Gerd Georgii.

Sebastian Luhmer, the farmer at the beginning of the episode, showed us around his farm in Niederbachem just south of Bonn.
Lies Messely of ILVO spoke to us from outside Ghent. Maria Roth, Franziska Aumer and Jürgen Donhauser also spoke to us from their homes in Bavaria. And Louise McHugh spoke to us from Dublin.

To download this and past episodes of Living Planet, go to Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to hit subscribe!

We’re also available on DW’s website, www.dw.com.

You can also find this and other great podcasts on our YouTube channel DW podcasts.

Thanks for listening. Living Planet is produced by DW in Bonn, Germany.

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