On his farm in Iowa, Matt Peters worked from dawn to dusk planting his 1,500 acres of fields with pesticide-treated seeds. “Every spring I worried about him,” said his wife, Ginnie. “Every spring I was glad when we were done.”
A clinical psychologist spoke to him on the phone and urged him to get medical help. “He said he had work to do, and I told him if it’s too wet in the morning to plant beans come see me,” Mike Rossman said. “And the next day I got the call.”In the spring of 2011, Ginnie Peters’ “calm, rational, loving” husband suddenly became depressed and agitated. “He told me ‘I feel paralyzed’,” she said. “He couldn’t sleep or think. Out of nowhere he was depressed.”
Peters took his own life. He was 55 years old.
No one knows what triggered Peters’ sudden shift in mood and behavior. But since her husband’s death, Ginnie Peters has been on a mission to not only raise suicide awareness in farm families but also draw attention to the growing evidence that pesticides may alter farmers’ mental health.
“These chemicals that farmers use, look what they do to an insect. It ruins their nervous system,” Peters said. “What is it doing to the farmer?”
Farming is a stressful job – uncontrollable weather, physical demands and economic woes intertwine with a personal responsibility for land that often is passed down through generations. But experts say that some of the chemicals used to control pests may make matters worse by changing farmers’ brain chemistry.
Recent research has linked long-term use of pesticides to higher rates of depression and suicide. Evidence also suggests that pesticide poisoning – a heavy dose in a short amount of time – doubles the risk of depression.
“For years there was a high level of denial in the farming community that mental illness exists, period,” said Lorann Stallones, an epidemiologist and psychology professor at Colorado State University. “But there’s been a shift – partly because there’s more people talking about being mentally incapacitated.”
Depression is the most common mental disability in the United States. About 7 percent of U.S. adults annually experience at least one two-week or longer stretch of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There is no national data on whether farmers and their workers are more prone to depression.
The causes are complex. There “are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life,” according to a Harvard Medical School report.
Peters and his wife were among 89,000 farmers and other pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina who have participated in the Agricultural Health Study led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.Some research suggests that the chemicals that farmers and their workers spread on fields may alter some of these brain chemicals.