How One Reporter’s Mission Brought Attention to the Suicide Epidemic Among Farm Workers

A suicide epidemic amongst farmers in America was a subject almost no one had heard of before Debbie Weingarten wrote her story. Knowledge of the alarming amount of suicides that occur in rural America wasn’t even fathomable unless you were from those areas. Now, a legislative bill improving mental health services for farm workers is on its way to realization—thanks to the power of Weingarten’s reporting.

Weingarten didn’t do it all on her own though. She had the backing of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, its editors as well as an editor at the Guardian. What she did bring all on her own was a first-hand experience to the suicide epidemic—she’d lived through it.

For years she struggled with the economic pressures of owning a farm and having nowhere to turn to for help.

Debbie Weingarten

“We couldn’t afford to buy the very food we were growing, let alone pay to see a counselor or go to the doctor or take a vacation,” Weingarten said. “I felt extremely stressed and isolated, and I didn’t know who to call for help. I remember googling ‘free counseling resources for farmers’ and literally finding nothing.”

Years later Weingarten would leave her farm life, but what she couldn’t shake was the thought of farmer suicide and the lacking amount of mental health services. So she went digging and found that the high rate of suicides for farmers was underreported. She set out to bring light to the issue and sought a platform. After being turned down by multiple publications, Weingarten came in contact with the EHRP.

“It was an easy decision to greenlight Debbie’s piece. EHRP is always on the hunt for surprising, underreported stories like this one,” said David Wallis, EHRP’s managing director.

The report, “Why are America’s farmers killing themselves in record numbers?,” became a part of EHRP’s On the Ground series that ran in the Des Moines Register as well as the Guardian. Weingarten, along with photographer Audra Mulkern, traveled and interviewed farmers for months. After they finished, the results were more than they’d hoped for.

“…The piece took off and I received messages and phone calls from people all over the world, as did Audra, as did the people profiled in it,” said Weingarten.

In the U.S., the article caught the attention of J.T. Wilcox, a Washington State Representative and fourth generation farmer, who introduced a farmworker suicide prevention bill because of the piece.

“The story also serves to remind us that journalism can actually work,” said Wallis. “We do this because we hope to create a modicum of change. The heartening reaction to Debbie’s story proves that our work truly matters.”

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Published: April 11, 2018

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