The quiet suicide epidemic plaguing French farmers
In France, one farmer commits suicide every two days. Dairy farmer Michou from the Loire-Atlantique region agreed to talk to us about the quiet epidemic that’s affecting his community.
“I’m the one who found him. It was awful. When I phoned him and he didn’t pick up but I saw his car I thought, something has happened to Raymond. Something really bad.”
On June 8, 2011, at around 5.45am, Michou’s friend and business partner for 20 years hanged himself on the wooden beams of the barn on their farm. “He tied his hands together, to make sure it worked,” leaving Michou “abandoned and alone”.
Michou, 56, who asked not to be filmed, lives on his own in a small house in the countryside near Nantes. All over the walls are pictures and souvenirs of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, which he visited during one of his rare holidays. On the kitchen cupboard, there is a photo of Raymond at dinner with friends. It reminds Michou of happier times.
In Michou’s town, no one calls him by his real name: Jean-Michel. But they all know and respect Michou, the dairy farmer who was born without his hands but who took on the family farm despite his physical disability.
'What did I not do? What did I not say?'
“I asked myself a lot of questions. Was it my fault? What did I not do? What did I not say?”
When someone takes their own life, their friends and families face agonising questions. Why that particular day? What could I have done to prevent it?
For farmers in the Loire Atlantique region, suicide has become an everyday matter. “There are lots of suicides,” Michou told us, wearily. “I have a neighbour who committed suicide, and also my cousin is going through a rough time. The pressure to produce, to earn a living, it’s just crazy. And there’s the alcohol too."
Raymond’s suicide was not linked to alcohol. Michou believes it was a culmination of exhaustion, stress and the drought. That year, the animals’ fodder had dried out under the harsh sun.
“We’d just worked 365 days non-stop, getting up every morning at 5am. And at night he would be with the cows during calving too. We went from having 120 cows to 180, and that’s not easy. Each animal still demands the same amount of attention. You can see there was a problem! A real problem!"
Every two days, one farmer in France commits suicide
Dairy farmers have a suicide rate that is 50% higher than France's national average. The problem is most acute in Brittany and the Loire region.
As well as their everyday tasks, farmers also have to care for the animals day and night, all year long. Christmas, wedding celebrations and birthday parties all get cut short, because the milking still needs to be done. The work never lets up.
Years of hard, outdoor labour are marked on the faces and bodies of those who have dedicated their lives to farming. Talking about what is inside, opening up about their feelings, is not something many farmers are comfortable with.
In this tight-lipped community, Michou has tried to break the taboo linked to mental health. “I always told myself I must not end up like that. And I can tell you, I’ve got plenty of reasons to. So from the start, I got help."
Help is out there
In 2011, the French government delegated the task of developing an action plan to the Mutuelle Sociale Agricole (MSA). A free hotline was introduced in 2011 (09 69 39 29 19). Counsellors specialised in dealing with suicidal situations man the phone 24 hours a day. So far, they’ve fielded 4,000 calls.
In the Nantes office of Solidarité Paysans, a charity set up more than twenty years ago, we met Isabelle Grégoire, a social worker, and Véronique Louazel, a public health researcher. They’re working with eighty farming families in the local area. Most are in financial debt and need advice and support.
“From what farmers tell us, psychological suffering and suicide occur when there’s a feeling of hopelessness, as if there’s no other choice. That could be not being able to pay back a bank loan or pay the vet bill. Why is that happening? Put simply, the price they can sell their produce for is not enough to cover their expenses. And so they work harder, hoping to earn more money. But then they become exhausated. And the debts continue to pile up and they think: ‘what else can I do? I’m working harder but I can’t get out of this.'"
For Grégoire, “the causes are multiple and in addition to the financial reasons, loneliness among farmers also comes into play. The feeling of isolation can lead to suicide."
Social pressure is also a key factor. “There’s the shame, they struggle to admit when they’re in trouble. They don’t want to fail where previous generations have succeeded. So when they ask for help, it’s often very late down the line.”
Michou has decided to retire before total exhaustion takes hold. He hopes to hand over his farm to his nephew. Not for the money, but so that his long hours of labour will not be lost in a wasteland.