AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT)- The Texas Department of Agriculture is working to create a program that provides mental health services and education to Texas farmers and agriculture workers.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased by 46% in rural parts of America, almost 20% higher than in metro areas.
For farmers, the rate is 3.5 times higher than other lifestyles in the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association.
Data from the CDC found that rural residents went to the emergency room to be treated for self-harm incidents 1.5 times more than metro residents.
NRHA sites some of the contributing factors as financial pressures, social pressures and reduced access to mental health services.
“There’s a lot of different reasons for this lack of access to health care services, lower proportion of those with health insurance, lower access to specialty health services,” said Miquela Smith, Extension program specialist for health with the disaster assessment and recovery unit. “So, living rurally puts you at higher risk for certain health outcomes.”
Living in rural areas also causes isolation from peers, another contributing factor for those experiencing mental health concerns.
“There’s a lot of kind of isolation, not opportunity to really interact and talk with people,” said Tiffany Lashmet, Associate professor and extension specialist in agricultural law.
Other stress factors include their being a greater risk of injury and vector-borne illnesses.
For many people in the farming and ranching industry, it’s not just the work that can lead to stress but the pressure of upholding family legacy.
“For a lot of us that grew up on family operations, you know, it’s not just our farm,” explained Lashmet. “It’s our family’s farm and our dad’s farm and our grandma’s farm.”
Lashmet continued, “you can’t be the generation that loses the farm, and you grow up hearing all about what your family has done, the sacrifices that have been made for that operation. So, I just think it can kind of be the perfect storm for a lot of pressure on people.”
Those in the agriculture industry are at the mercy of uncontrollable factors like mother nature, the economy and viruses. All of which can lead to additional financial stress.
“The weather, the prices, insects, diseases, you know, things like that, that we just kind of have no control over,” said Lashmet.
With growing concern surrounding mental health in the agriculture industry Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has been working to create solutions.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do at AgriLife Extension Service is educate people on these topics so that we can reduce stigma, we know that stigma is one of the greatest barriers to seeking care,” explained Smith.
Smith shared that having more access to Telehealth services is important and with that comes the need for good broadband access.
Agrilife is also working to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
“So, that people who are experiencing a mental health challenge, whether it be in the general community, or someone who’s an ag producer, they don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed if they need to get care, we want to make sure that we reduce stigma, stated Smith.
Smith and Lashmet recently partnered with the Southwest Ag Center at the University of Texas Tyler to share the story of Grant Heinreich, who comes from a cotton-producing family that has dealt with multiple cases of suicide.
In addition to sharing stories of those in the industry, AgriLife is encouraging people to reach out through the AgriStress Helpline or by calling the number at 833-897-2474.
As well as offering mental health first aid training and education.
West Texas A&M University Paul Engler College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences collaborated with Texas AgriLife and Panhandle Center for Behavioral Health to take a proactive approach to address mental health in the agriculture industry.
Through the collaboration, administrators were trained to administer Youth Mental Health First Aid to seniors.
“We started with a program that was really designed for students that are seeking certification in our college, “said Rebeka Bachman, Assistant Dean Paul Engler College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. “So, folks that are going to be high school teachers. What we know is the Ag teachers are a key part of small communities and can be good resources for people that are struggling with mental health.”
Bachman said the goal of the program is to “try to help educate the future generations of people in agriculture and the generations that come after them. To destigmatizes what we know, is a problem in the ag industry.”
Being in the agriculture industry and having a college that focuses on preparing students to be successful in the agriculture industry know that over time people in farming and ranching struggle with suicide rates.
“We do know that the industry itself is one of strong work ethic and can-do attitudes. People think that they need to individualize and just be strong and they’re isolated, stated Bachman.
Uncontrollable factors that directly affect production agriculture, are weather and prices that impact family’s futures and finances.
Administrators within the Paul Engler College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences want students to know the resources that are available to them and understand that it’s okay to not be okay.
Bachman continued, “the key is to provide them the ability to identify and refer people that they care about to the resources that are available. Most communities have resources available to help people that are struggling, and it’s okay to not be okay.”
“Just the idea that young people can help be listeners, and help be facilitators to get people to professionals that can really help ease on the struggles that they’re facing, said Bachman.”
For those in the ag industry, it’s important to find help from professionals who understand the industry. In most cases of work stress, the solution would be to take time off. But, for a farmer or rancher who runs their own operations that isn’t a feasible option.
“Understanding that we need healthcare resources and mental health care resources that are accessible to farmers and ranchers and having providers that understand their unique cultural needs,” said Smith.
Also knowing that the first therapist you see may not be the one you continue going to, but seeking professional help is a step in the right direction.
Now that conversations about mental health in the industry are becoming more prevalent, AgriLife Extension has received positive feedback from their presentations.
“I think for folks who have had these types of experiences, and maybe haven’t had the ability to talk about them, or the support behind them, I think this type of education, these types of conversations are extremely important, explained Smith. “They’re seen as extremely valuable.”
Lashmet went on to share “Miquela and I have gone around and done presentations and afterward, we’ve had men come up to us who I guarantee you have never talked anything about mental health in their lives. “And told us, hey, what you’re talking about is really important, or, hey, we’ve dealt with that, thank you for bringing this out into the light and so, I think there’s a lot of hope right now, because we are so much more willing to have these conversations.”
For individuals and families in the agriculture industry, Lashmet shared a piece of information that someone told her to keep in mind.
“You’re more than the markets, you’re more than the operation, you’re more important than the farm,” said Lashmet.
In an effort to have a sustainable way of addressing mental health in the industry, the Texas Department of Agriculture asked the Texas legislature for $500,000 in funding ahead of the 88th legislative session for the Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program.
If granted the money it would pay for the toll-free helpline for workers, families and communities impacted in the agriculture industry.
If you are interested in mental health and first aid training, you can contact your county’s extension line to access the training.
Also, contact the AgriStress Helpline at 833-897-2474 or the National Suicide Prevention line at 988.