ENON VALLEY, Pa. — This was supposed to be the summer Rob and Stacy Cosgrove would start the next chapter of their lives together. They’d finally be empty nesters.
The couple had successfully raised four children, Michelle, Maggie, Marissa and Brian, in the big white farmhouse just outside of Enon Valley proper. It’s the same farmhouse where Rob grew up with his parents and three older sisters.
Marissa graduated from college in the spring and Brian from high school. Maggie moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the past year, taking advantage of the freedom her remote job allows. Michelle lives and works in a nearby town with her husband and son.
“You don’t have kids so you can keep them forever, as much as we would like to,” Stacy said. She’s curled up on a couch in the den of her home, and I’m sitting across from her. “You’re raising them to go out and live their lives and be productive members of society, whatever that means to them, right?”
“Yeah, you did it,” I replied. “You guys did it.”
I paused and sighed. “But Rob isn’t here to see it.”
Stacy nodded, tearing up again. “Yeah,” she said, softly. “That’s the sucky part.”
Stacy and Rob were sketching out what that life would look like, figuring out “who are we” after three decades devoted wholeheartedly to being mom and dad. But the next pages were ripped out of the book when Rob died last summer.
This new chapter is one Stacy will write on her own.
• • •
It was a cold day in April when I drove to the Mercer County Extension Office for a workshop on mental health. This workshop was one of many recent attempts by state and federal agencies and ag groups to reach farmers and people working in agriculture to talk about mental health and farm stress.
The topic has long been stigmatized in farming communities. We’re tough. We can handle things on our own. We don’t need to be all touchy-feely, talking about our emotions or our problems. Things need to get done. Animals need our care. Crops need to be harvested. Farmers would much rather push it all down inside and keep going.
Until you can’t and the problems build up and become so heavy, piled on top of each other that you’re physically weighed down by them. Do you know that feeling? I do.
I walked into the small auditorium to find a handful of people. I was one of only two people attending that were not in some way part of organizing the workshop.
The educators at the workshop covered the challenges farmers face, some of which are unique to farming. The second part of the workshop is what got me. We were taught how to recognize and respond to a person in crisis. This involves active listening, showing support and being direct.
The part that struck me most was when we practiced saying out loud, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” The words are uncomfortable. They sort of get caught in your mouth when you say them, even when you’re saying it to no one specific during a workshop. It feels like by saying the word “suicide” that you are opening a can of worms you’ll never be able to shut. Because if they say yes, then what do you do? Do you know?
I came out to my car covered in a thin layer of snow and ice. My mind was buzzing. How can I tell people about what I just learned and convey how powerful it was? This could save lives. Will anyone read a story about a workshop?
As I waited for my car to warm up, it hit me. I knew a family who had gone through this. I met them last summer during the 2021 fair season for another story. They lived about 10 minutes from me, and I felt immediately at ease when chatting with them on their back patio on a humid morning that August. Maybe they would be willing to share their story. Or maybe they’d tell me to get lost. Either way, I figured it was worth a shot.
I called Stacy Cosgrove from the parking lot of the extension office. She didn’t answer, thank goodness, because I still wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her, so I left her a long rambling voicemail. I texted her, too.
After a couple days of not hearing back, I figured that she wasn’t interested or that I had scared her off with my nervous jabbering. But then, almost a month later, she texted me. She was willing to talk about Rob.
• • •
Cows are the reason Stacy and Rob Cosgrove met in fall of 1992. She was a single mom with a 5-year-old daughter, working as an accountant and milking cows on the side for her cousin, in Fombell, Pennsylvania.
Rob was working at his family’s dairy farm in Enon Valley, and selling feed on the side “because he was saving up money to buy a new pickup truck,” Stacy said.
“My cousins knew him because he sold them feed and they thought we’d make a great match,” she said. Her cousin and his wife had a reputation for being successful matchmakers, so she trusted their judgment.
They met for the first time at Big Knob Fair, in September 1992. She was 22. He was 28. Her cousins made sure they were both at the booth selling raffle tickets for the local Holstein Association.
It wasn’t love at first sight, but she thought he was cute and funny. She wasn’t looking for a relationship, but things clicked. They were married just over 18 months later.
“He liked to have fun and laugh and wasn’t afraid of things like me,” Stacy said. “He was brave.”
Rob would get Stacy out of her comfort zone, helping her do things she never would have done otherwise. He made her brave.
They married April 29, 1994. Rob adopted Stacy’s daughter, Michelle. They had two more daughters together, Maggie and Marissa. The family lived in a house next door to the farmhouse where Rob grew up, and Rob continued working alongside his parents to run the family’s farm. Stacy continued to work off farm.
Rob was the only one of his siblings who stayed to work on the farm after graduating from high school. Stacy said it was expected of him to stay, but he also enjoyed the work. They milked between 40 and 60 Holsteins and grew and harvested all their own crops. He was close with his parents, James and Arlene.
“I used to tell him all the time that he never really moved out of their house,” Stacy said. “He stayed with us, but he ate lunch with his parents every day. He took naps in their house every chance he got.”
Things changed in 2001 when Rob’s mother died. She had a perforated ulcer that became septic. She died suddenly in February. Rob’s father died that November from a heart attack. He started having symptoms during morning milking in the barn.
The loss of your parents is one thing. But to lose your parents, as well as your coworkers and your business partners at the same time, all within a year?
Rob was suddenly left alone to run the farm. The isolation, on top of the grief, was overwhelming, Stacy said. He was anxious. He lost weight. He couldn’t sleep.
Things reached a breaking point the next summer.
“He told us he was thinking about killing himself,” Stacy said. Stacy and Rob’s sister took him to the local hospital, where he was voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit. He stayed there for a couple days before he was released.
“The medicine helped and counseling helped and getting rid of the cows was good,” Stacy said. They sold the herd and got out of dairying in September 2002. It took a weight off Rob’s shoulders.
There were still challenges, though. The counselor was about a 30-minute drive away from the farm. Rob knew he needed to go, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. He didn’t like talking to a stranger about his problems. Plus he was still running the dairy when he began counseling. It didn’t last long.
“To take an hour and a half or two hours out of your day, by the time you drive there and you have an hour of therapy and then you drive home,” Stacy said. “It just added more stress, which is not what it was supposed to do.”
Stacy said Rob had never struggled before with mental health issues. His doctor at the time said it was obviously triggered by things going on in his life.
“You just get hit by wave after wave. You get down and then you can’t get up again,” Stacy said.
HOW TO GET HELP NOW
Call or text 988 to talk to a trained crisis counselor with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
If you live in Pennsylvania, call or text 833-897-2474 to reach the AgriStress HelpLine for Pennsylvania to talk to a trained crisis professional knowledgeable about agriculture.
These helplines are confidential, free and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When to call: if you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support. You do not have to be suicidal to call. Reasons to call include: economic worries, relationships, illness, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, sexual identity or getting over abuse.
• • •
You’ve probably heard this shocking statistic in the last five or so years: farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide compared to the general population. It was highlighted in a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. It made people pay attention, but it isn’t new information. Rates of suicide among U.S. farmers first reached an all time high during the 1980’s farm crisis. According to CDC, rates of suicide have increased over the past 20 years, and people in the agricultural industry have one of the highest rates of death by suicide.
A national conversation was jump-started about the stress farmers face, how it affects them, how they deal with it and what resources are out there for rural residents. Farming has all the issues other small businesses face — finding labor, navigating difficult and ever-changing regulations and working long hours — along with some unique ones that compound those problems.
A person’s success in farming often depends on many things completely out of their control, like weather, pests, commodity markets and international trade. That can leave farmers feeling powerless to control their own destiny. In order to deal with these challenges, some get deep into debt trying to keep up.
Now, add to that the fact that farming is usually seen as more than just a job. It’s an identity. It’s a way of life. For many, it’s a family legacy. If things go wrong, you’re not just letting down yourself, but generations of your ancestors who came and farmed before you.
All of that makes saying “I need help” hard. Finding help can be even harder.
A recent survey of Pennsylvania farmers, conducted by an alliance of the state’s livestock producers, showed the No. 1 obstacle to them seeking help for mental health struggles was embarrassment. The second biggest obstacle to seeking mental health help was cost. An American Farm Bureau Federation poll from 2019 found similar results, with cost, embarrassment and stigma ranking as the top obstacles for seeking treatment for a mental health condition.
Farmers are also people with their own personal challenges and struggles that have nothing to do with the occupation they are in.
• • •
If I’m being honest, I wanted to explore this topic because of how close I’d come to the edge. Maybe that’s part of why I went to that workshop in the first place.
This past winter things were dark. I was three months postpartum in February. I had a little baby and a busy almost-3-year-old boy at home. I had just started back to my day job as a reporter at Farm and Dairy. Things were already feeling overwhelming, and then lambing started a week early.
A week in, it rained on top of frozen, snowy ground, turning everything into an icy, flooded mess. As I was walking out to the gate from my evening flock check, I happened to look down the lane to the water trough and saw a ewe lying on the ground. It was an odd place for her to be resting, in the cold rain, 50 yards away from the flock.
I think the ewe fell on the icy path to the trough and injured one of her legs. Then she couldn’t get up, being so heavily pregnant. We got her to the barn, dried her off and warmed her up. She was doing well otherwise, but she couldn’t stand.
The next day, there were two stillborn lambs in a set of triplets from another ewe. The third lamb wasn’t getting enough milk because the ewe never started producing, so it became a bottle baby. The day after that the injured ewe died. I must have missed her by less than an hour.
My father-in-law and I made a last-ditch effort to get her lambs out with an emergency C-section. We both knew it was futile, but we had to try anyway. She had two big beautiful ram lambs that died with her. The bottle baby ended up dying too.
I’ve experienced deep loss, grief and sadness before. That was like being hit by a tsunami. The flood waters rose rapidly and tried to swallow me whole, but I held on, knowing they would recede eventually.
This was different. It was like being pulled out to sea by a riptide. I thought I was in control, but before I knew it I’d been dragged into the open ocean. I was treading water with no shore in sight and struggling to keep my head above the waves.
We still had more than half the flock left to lamb. I wasn’t sleeping more than two or three hours at a go. I would have liked to lie in bed all day, but I couldn’t.
At some point the thought crossed my mind that the only solution to my problems was to not exist anymore. It scared me, but it also felt like an answer, which was a relief. I don’t know that I wanted to die. I just wanted to not exist. Because existing with all this stuff was too heavy.
I’m obviously still here. One thing that helped me is medication. The other thing that helped was talking to a fellow farmer. Not about how dark and hopeless I was feeling, but complaining about how crappy farming was at the time. It’s easy to gripe about farming.
During one bitch session on the phone, my friend said off-hand that the only thing to do was put one foot in front of the other and trudge along. That felt like an actual answer. It was the life preserver I needed. I could trudge. That was basically all I felt capable of doing, but trudging was forward motion at least. And it would take me to a time when lambing was done and the weather was better and the baby was older and slept more.
• • •
Knowing that a person is struggling might seem obvious. There are various lists that lay out the common behavioral signs, like sleeping too much or too little, withdrawing from social events and activities, isolating themselves or increased alcohol or drug use. They may seem depressed, anxious, irritable or agitated.
Farmer specific signs include a decline in the care of crops, animals and the farm and an increase in farm accidents. More blatant signs include giving away prized possessions, talking about being a burden to others or talking about wanting to die or kill themselves.
Sometimes, though, there are no overt signs, said Dr. Tara Haskins, Total Farmer Health Director with AgriSafe, a national nonprofit aimed at reducing health disparities in agricultural communities. Sometimes it comes down to a gut feeling.
“It may be knowing that you feel like something’s not right, and it’s certainly OK to approach that person if you feel some level of concern,” she said.
A person in crisis can struggle with problem solving, seeing solutions or a path forward, Haskins said. The technical term for it is cognitive constriction. It’s basically like tunnel vision. They cannot access the parts of their brain that allow them to see other options. In many cases, the period of crisis is temporary. It may only last several hours.
“If we can talk to them, keep them safe and get them past that crisis period, then we provide an opportunity for them to connect with someone and explore feelings and options for help,” Haskins said.
You can save a life. It doesn’t take an expert, but it can be scary to know what to do. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I’m overreacting?
There are various training programs out there to help people feel more comfortable and confident about their ability to recognize the signs and respond to someone in crisis and encourage getting help. One popular training these days is called QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer. There are also Mental Health First Aid courses.
The basics are to be calm, be direct, listen, be supportive and be compassionate. Make sure the person stays safe and does not have access to lethal means.
“If you are coming from a place of caring, you can never go wrong,” Haskins said.
A common misconception is that bringing up suicide will push a person to act on it, Haskins said. That’s not true. In fact, research has shown that people who are suicidal are often waiting for someone to reach out to them.
“You may be the one person that could do something,” Haskins said.
• • •
After selling the cows, Rob got a job off the farm. The couple’s son, Brian, was born in 2004. Stacy stopped working outside the home to take care of raising their four children. Life went on.
For a while, they rented their farmland out for someone else to use. They enrolled some of their land in the USDA’s CREP program. After a few years, Rob was ready to farm again.
“Farmers can’t stay away,” Stacy said. “They need to be in the dirt. There’s just a connection there.”
Rob did row crops. They never got back into keeping livestock, except when the kids were into 4-H or when Stacy would keep chickens on and off over the years.
Maggie remembers her dad as funny and caring while she was growing up. He would make up silly songs. He would get down on the floor and play with them.
She lovingly described him as a collector of things, “like any farmer with giant buildings to himself.”
“I think that’s like the funniest thing about him was he would come home from work and be like, “Oh my God, I found this in a dumpster. I can refurbish this and use it as something else,’” she said.
It’s a trait his children have taken up, “stopping for stuff on the side of the road,” Maggie said. “I know we all do that.”
As she got older, Maggie said her dad saw her as a human quickly. One night when she snuck out the house, and subsequently got caught, she remembers riding in the car with him as he talked to her about the things he wanted for her in life.
He wanted his children to be empowered to live their lives however they saw fit, so he gave them the skills, stability and confidence to do that, Maggie said. Rob had never flown the nest. He was firmly rooted in Enon Valley, but he wanted to provide his children a safe launch pad and landing place for their adult lives, she said.
“He wanted more for us. He wanted the best for us. It wasn’t something where your mistakes were used against you,” Maggie said.
Things chugged along until last July. Something happened at work, Stacy said. He had made a couple mistakes, but it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed. It seemed like he was having an outsized reaction to it, she said. He was stressed and anxious and starting to spiral.
“He got in his mind that these mistakes he made were going to ruin his life, ruin the company, and the kids were going to be disappointed in him and think less of him,” she said.
Stacy urged him to get an appointment with the family doctor to get back on medication. It helped so much before that she thought it would help again. Things didn’t seem as urgent as before. She thought they had time. He just needed to get to the doctor.
The last time Maggie talked to her dad was on her 24th birthday. It was a Monday.
He called her to wish her a happy birthday and they chatted for a bit. Maggie lived the farthest away of her four siblings. She was in Philadelphia at the time. Maggie had no idea that her dad had been stressed. He sounded normal on the phone.
A few days later, on Friday, July 30, Rob got up that morning and went to work. He texted with Stacy during his break at 9 a.m. The couple was supposed to go to a wedding reception that evening for some family friends.
Not long after that, Rob took his own life.
Stacy found out when the state police came to her door. At first she thought maybe her son had gotten in trouble for riding quads on the road or something, “nothing serious,” she said.
The rest of the day was a blur as family and friends began to show up at the farmhouse after hearing the news.
Stacy didn’t think it had gotten that bad. Not like before. Why didn’t he tell her? Then she could have done something sooner, more urgent. She could have helped him.
But he was just gone.
• • •
Rob died two weeks before the Lawrence County Fair, where Brian was going to show cattle. Brian went through with it and the community rallied around him during the auction. They ran up the bid on his steer to $12.90/pound, bringing in more than $17,000. His 4-H leader, Ed Clark, said at the time that they didn’t want Brian to worry about how he’d pay for welding school after he graduated high school.
Rob’s company kept the family on their insurance through the end of the year, giving Stacy time to find a full-time job with benefits. She had been working part time as the township tax collector, doing bookwork for a local church and babysitting her grandson.
She found an office job in October. Stacy calls herself an introvert, but she said it’s nice to be around people at work. It’s been a distraction.
She started going to therapy, something she said has been a life saver. Through her therapist’s office, she joined a young widows group. It was only supposed to last six weeks, but the ladies enjoyed being together so much they’ve continued to meet up about once a month on their own.
She got a tattoo on her left wrist that reads “Love always, Rob” in his handwriting, taken from a card he wrote Stacy. It was a Christmas gift from her daughter, Marissa.
Stacy still hasn’t figured out who she is yet, but she’s working on it. The outline of her new life is taking shape.
Getting through the milestones of the first year has been tough. Not only were there birthdays without and holidays without, but a college graduation and a high school graduation to celebrate without Rob. It’s happy and sad, all at once.
“Do you ever feel mad at him?” I asked Maggie over the phone. Anger can be a part of grief.
“No, I think I just feel a lot more sad, like somebody that you love, what they were feeling was so big and heavy and for whatever reason, they couldn’t reach out about it or that it was their burden to carry,” Maggie said. “You never want somebody to feel like that.”
• • •
I thought by hearing Rob’s story, analyzing it and retelling it, maybe I could figure out why I’m still here and he’s not. Or maybe I could figure out how to help other farmers who are struggling. Or, if nothing else, I could help people who have been through this, because they often suffer in silence. If I was lucky, maybe this story would accomplish all three.
I have no idea why I’m here and Rob isn’t. This isn’t a story of what could’ve been done or should’ve been done. Sometimes there aren’t clear answers.
That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We’re at the beginning of efforts to help farmers deal with stress and mental health issues. The only place to go from here is up, particularly with the millions of dollars the U.S. Department of Agriculture is pumping into state and regional programs.
With funding from the USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, Pennsylvania partnered with AgriSafe to launch a free, 24-hour crisis hotline for farmers, the AgriStress Helpline for Pennsylvania. People can call or text 833-897-2474 to chat with a trained professional that can help someone in crisis and is knowledgeable about agricultural issues. In addition, Pennsylvania supported free training in AgriSafe’s FarmResponse for healthcare providers, Cultivating a Healthy Mind, which is mental health youth programming, and Agricultural QPR for Farmers and Farm Families, suicide intervention training for anyone across the state.
Time will tell if there are measurable outcomes, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
When there is a loss, support for those left behind is critical, Haskins said, because the risk of suicide is increased for those who know someone who died by suicide. That doesn’t just include immediate family and close friends. The circle of people impacted by a person’s suicide death can reach up to 135 people, according to one study.
Formal support measures are important, but the value of a listening ear and kind heart cannot be overstated. Some of the best conversations don’t happen in a therapist’s office. They happen leaning on the bedside of your buddy’s truck as it’s parked in the driveway.
“You don’t have to have the perfect right words to say,” Haskins said. “You just have to have a caring attitude and willingness to listen.”
Death is hard for people to talk about. Suicide perhaps even more so because of the shame and stigma that come with it. Stacy has seen that firsthand.
“I think people get uncomfortable when I say his name,” Stacy said. “I don’t care anymore, but you could tell people get a little weird. But I still want to hear his name. I still want to hear stories. I’m going to cry. That’s OK. I still want to hear about him.”
To mark the one-year anniversary of Rob’s death, Stacy rented a 30-yard dumpster. It was time for them to throw out some of Rob’s junk he’d collected over the years. The kids came over, and they made a whole day of it. A couple loads of scrap metal were hauled away by her son-in-law and his friend. They made piles of things to burn.
There was laughter, tears, a little bit of frustration and some incredulousness at the things they dragged out of the barns that Rob had stashed away. When they had enough, they got cleaned up and went out for ice cream.
It’s what Rob would’ve wanted, Stacy said. He would have liked it. “Being productive is honoring him,” she said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
• • •
Communicating with Farmers Under Stress live webinar, hosted by Pennsylvania State University Extension; from 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 4; info: https://extension.psu.edu/communicating-with-farmers-under-stress-webinar
Free Mental Health First Aid live webinar, hosted by Pennsylvania State University Extension; multiple dates upcoming; info: extension.psu.edu/adult-mental-health-first-aid
Free Mental Health First Aid live webinar, hosted by Ohio State University; multiple dates upcoming; info: go.osu.edu/farmstress22mhfa
Request QPR training at www.agrisafe.org/courses/qpr/
Ohio State University Rural and Farm Stress: u.osu.edu/farmstress/
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org
Call 211 to find local community resources.