A New Mental Health Hotline for Farmers & Ranchers

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by High Country News.

Three superimposed images of a farm with cows in the background, four phone cords, and illustrated dragonflies

Editor’s note: This piece discusses suicide and the mental health crises among U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Monte Bush was only 15 when his grandfather died by suicide on the family farm outside Riverton, Wyoming. One minute, they were working on a pivot irrigator and discussing how expensive a new pump would be; an hour later, Bush found his grandpa’s body.

He took over that summer as the property’s caretaker with his grandmother, making sure malt barley, pinto beans and alfalfa were harvested on time and managing a herd of 400 sheep.

“I never grieved,” he said. “I buried it, and I got back to work.”

More than 30 years passed before Bush’s trauma and untreated mental health problems bubbled over. He turned to whiskey for solace, and after a night of drinking near the town of Greybull, took off in his truck and slammed into an oncoming vehicle. He wore no seatbelt, and his forehead struck the windshield. Doctors later said that he and some of the other vehicle’s four occupants were lucky to survive.  

A new hotline seeks to help people like Bush before they hit their breaking point.

The AgriStress Helpline for Farmers and Ranchers is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by professionals trained to work with members of agricultural communities.

It’s run by AgriSafe, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce disparities in rural health care, and Via Link, a crisis support provider. The hotline, which is also available in Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri and Virginia, is supported with grant funding from each state’s Department of Agriculture. So far, Wyoming is the only Western state to get involved.

Three superimposed images of a farm with cows in the background, four phone cords, and illustrated dragonflies
(Source images: Internet Archive Book Images, Bill Dickinson, Sharon’s outlook/Creative Commons. Illustration by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News)

The launch comes at a time of renewed attention to mental health resources across the country. The federal crisis number, 988, which accesses networks of local and state-funded crisis centers, became available to all landline and cellphone users in mid-July.

Mental health is a particularly important issue in Wyoming. The state had the nation’s highest rate of suicides per capita in 2020; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its suicide rate is more than double the national average.

Wyoming’s suicide prevention line only recently received funding for 24/7 coverage, although staffing is still limited.

Farmers and ranchers in need can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But they might meet providers who don’t understand the unique challenges they face: keeping the ranch in the family, operating on slim financial margins, battling waves of grasshoppers or watching crops wither during drought.

“There are so many factors in agriculture that are out of their control,” said Tara Haskins, who runs AgriSafe’s mental health programming and the help line.

“They can’t control the market. They can’t control the weather. They feel the need to keep working regardless, because when they spend time away, they can equate that to money lost.”

“There are so many factors in agriculture that are out of their control.”

AgriStress line callers will receive a more personalized response. While the line offers the same suicide prevention services as calling 988 does — to make sure they are not in physical danger or at risk of imminent self-harm, providing emotional support and coping techniques, referring clients to additional resources — the new hotline’s providers have extra agricultural training and regional expertise.

They know what’s locally grown and raised, and what common stressors are.

Clinton Wilson, program director of AgWell, an organization that provides stress-management support to agricultural workers throughout Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, sees the need for empathetic mental health resources specifically designed for farmers and ranchers.

“Mental health does get kicked further down the priority list because you’ve got a calf to deliver, you’ve got a row of corn to harvest, or you’ve got weeds to go and attend to,” he said.  

Wyoming’s line just started in July, so the Wyoming Department of Agriculture lacks usage statistics. But according to AgriSafe, the Texas and Pennsylvania lines have seen a 10% gain in calls every month since they launched earlier this year.

Farm labor help, crisis de-escalation and financial help are the top three reasons for calls, and AgriSafe hopes the pilot states will eventually inform a national rollout. Other Mountain West states, including Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Idaho and Colorado, also have higher-than-average suicide rates.

It often takes a while for people to find or share a hotline number and feel comfortable using it, so call volumes are expected to increase over time.

“It’s been bred into farmers and ranchers and people working in agriculture that you should be able to do it yourself, you shouldn’t need to depend on anyone,” Wilson said.

Three superimposed photos of a farmer working in a farm, a sign of due payments, and a phone cord
(Source images: Guy Clinch, University Wyoming Extension/Creative Commons. Illustration by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News)

Other mental health lines are relatively underused, considering the need. According to Vibrant, the company that administers the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the line receives about 3.5 million calls a year, a small fraction of the approximately 150 million people who have mental and/or substance abuse disorders, or who have been exposed to potentially traumatizing events.

Experts say that a conversation’s outcome is likely a better indicator of success than overall call volume, even though it’s trickier to track. “Did the call potentially save a life?” said Natalie Roy, executive director of AgriSafe. “That’s hard to measure.”

“It was something I was scared of, because my grandfather was depressed, but I didn’t want to go get help.”

Today, Bush is sober and on a mission to spread awareness about the importance of mental health care, as well as the dangers of drinking and driving.

“Mental health was never talked about,” he said, thinking back to his childhood on the farm. “It was something I was scared of, because my grandfather was depressed, but I didn’t want to go get help.”

In small towns, where everyone knows everyone’s vehicle, parking your truck outside a therapist’s office isn’t easy. That’s why Bush thinks a hotline like AgriStress could be useful to rural Wyomingites.

“If they know they can get help, or at least start the process, from the comfort of their home … keeping that privacy would be extremely beneficial,” he said. “Once you ask (for help), then you get to start the journey and work through things.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 988 or 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You can also text HELLO to 741741 to speak with a trained professional at the Crisis Text Line. The AgriStress hotline is available for agricultural producers in Wyoming, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia at 833-897-2474.

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October 12, 2022 4:55 PM
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