This article is written in honor of National Farm Safety and Health Week.
SAN LUIS VALLEY -- In southeastern Colorado, one-time workshops were offered several years ago, teaching local loan officers basic warning signs of suicide to watch out for when working with their clients. The clients they were focusing on were farmers.
The program was born out of need, following a spate of suicides that hit several small towns over the course of just a few months. As was later learned, the loan officers were, in many cases, the first people that farmers told they had thought about ending their lives, even before they told their spouses or families or friends or even the minister in their local church.
At a simple commonsense level, it is understandable why that might be the case. While it is certainly not the only stressor in a farmer’s life, financial stress and perpetual focus on the bottom line frequently come up as the top worries keeping farmers awake at night. It is only natural that, in the course of a conversation with the loan officer at the bank that holds the note on the family farm, the overwhelming impact of that stress would come up in some of those conversations.
Suicide rates in agriculture vary from state to state, sometimes county to county and year to year. But, at the national level, the CDC reports the rate of suicide in the agriculture industry typically ranks in the top three industries/occupations most at risk. And there is even some skepticism that those numbers may be skewed in one direction or the other as the most recent study did not include all states, including, among others, farm belt states like Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa.
A number of generic factors also set the backdrop for higher rates. As proven in multiple studies, suicide rates are higher in rural areas than in urban areas and higher in areas where there are more guns that are more readily available.
But, on the ground, the reasons for the ranking are no mystery to those working in agriculture as the industry seems to take hit after hit. Fluctuating markets. International conflicts and national policies. Commodity prices so low that it costs more to plant and harvest a crop than what the crop will pay on the market. And climate change – that massive unknown – causing a string of record-breaking extreme weather events where some farmers are getting flooded out while others watch excessive heat and drought burn up their crops in the fields. Shrinking water resources and a federal government that can’t agree on priority or the best way forward.
Any question about the impact all this is having was answered in research conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation indicating that 91% of farmers and farmworkers have financial concerns and 87% fear of losing their farm.
And fear of losing the farm cannot be equaled for losing a job, for, in the majority of agriculture families, farming is not just a profession, it’s part of that family’s identity. Part of their heritage. Part of their legacy and what will be passed on to the next generation. In families that have been farming for years, there is also the tremendous weight of knowing that the farm is the result of previous generations’ investments in time, energy and devotion. Ensuring it continues is often viewed as an enormous and highly personal responsibility.
Farmers, often solitary folks, are also too often reluctant to speak about their mental health, largely due to historic stigmas attached to issues of mental health compounded by a lack of resources available in rural communities. And even if access to mental health is not an obstacle, too many times mental health professionals don’t have the experience to understand the ag culture when working with those who are willing to open up and seek help.
Again, none of this is news to the Colorado Farm Bureau. And, along with a coalition of farm and ranch trade groups and behavioral health organizations, they launched a program to help.
The Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program (CAAMHP) was created specifically to connect farmers and ranchers struggling with mental health with licensed professionals "who have taken the time to understand the specific stressors our agricultural communities face," the Farm Bureau said in announcing the program.
Equally crucial, the program was created with input from farmers and ranchers to help others like themselves with provisions that address the biggest obstacles to reaching out.
Services can be accessed from home without having to drive anywhere or “be seen” getting help by friends, neighbors or other farmers and ranchers.
It’s anonymous – a person just calls a number to speak to someone and there is no sharing of information.
Many in agriculture have very limited health insurance and accessing mental health can be costly. To help with that, the program provides vouchers to offset the cost of accessing licensed behavioral health professionals.
The people on the other end of the phone are familiar with agriculture, in some cases coming from agriculture communities themselves and familiar with the specific kinds of stressors farmers face.
“Part of Colorado Farm Bureau’s mission is to protect rural communities and we have worked hard here in Colorado and nationally with the American Farm Bureau Federation to ensure our communities are rural strong,” says Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. “We have heard of too many stories in our communities where those who are struggling can’t find the help they need, leading to a tragic end. Our hope is that this program will get resources to those in historically hard-to-reach areas and ultimately, save lives.”
“Providing access to mental health resources during some of the darkest times in our friends’, families’ and neighbors’ lives is so important, and we’re proud to be a part of this work,” states rancher Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau.
It can only be hoped that financial burdens ease on the agricultural industry and soon. But as larger issues like climate change play an increasingly dominant role, it’s even more important that the stigma surrounding mental health issues – in all professions and areas of life – be reduced so that people are more comfortable in getting assistance and support in dealing with difficulties when they need it.
Big hopes, to be certain. But perhaps not unattainable.
Those who wish to take advantage of this service can learn more by going to CAAMHPforHealth.org to learn about the program and a list of partner organizations. More information can also be found at the Colorado Department of Agriculture website at Rural Mental Health | Department of Agriculture (colorado.gov)