Health

As life on the farm gets even harder, Oregon considers joining the drive for mental health help

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
April 15, 2023 1 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story contains discussions of suicide and depression. If you or someone you love is considering self-harm, support is available 24 hours a day at the national suicide crisis lifeline. Just call 988.

Cows follow a feed truck on a Wallowa County farm on Jan. 19, 2023. Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find farmers are two to three times as likely to die by suicide as the general public.

Cows follow a feed truck on a Wallowa County farm on Jan. 19, 2023. Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find farmers are two to three times as likely to die by suicide as the general public.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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For years, Jim Hamsher has worked on ranches, roping steers and feeding cattle in Grant County. The list of those he has lost to suicide is long and painful: “I’ve lost my nephew, my uncle, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law’s stepdaughter, my other brother-in-law’s stepson,” he said recently. “My neighbor. My neighbor behind him. I’ve lost my classmates. I’ve lost under-classmates that were a year older. Way too many.”

Farming is hard work. The chores never end, and something as simple as bad weather can mean financial disaster.

Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find farmers are two to three times more likely to die by suicide than the general public.

In an effort to help, Oregon legislators are considering Senate Bill 955, which would provide state money to support a suicide helpline for people who work the land.

Hamsher, a Grant County commissioner, said many ranchers simply aren’t taught to seek help for mental health challenges. In his experience, they tend to internalize problems and keep to themselves.

“They are brought up to be real tough and self-reliant,” he said. “A lot of times the weight of the whole family farm lies on their shoulders.”

Hamsher said even if an agricultural worker wants to talk about their emotional state, their workday is usually spent alone. And on the unlikely chance there’s a mental health clinic nearby, some people are reluctant to risk letting it be known around town that they are struggling.

“They’re not going to take the chance of driving in there and being labeled that they have some kind of an issue,” Hamsher said. “So they just don’t talk to anybody.”

Even helplines can be a problem.

“They may call a suicide line, and the well-meaning person on the other end may be from an urban area and not really understanding what the farmer [or] rancher is even dealing with,” Hamsher said.

“That can cause them to feel even more isolated.”

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All of these issues are well recognized by Dr. Allison Myers, an associate dean at the College of Public Health at Oregon State University. She’s working to reduce the suicide rate within Oregon’s agricultural communities.

Senate Bill 955 would provide $300,000 to link callers to an established helpline called AgriStress.

A screenshot of the AgriSafe website, where people working in the agricultural field can find mental health support. The company has an established helpline that is currently operating in six states, called AgriStress. Oregon Senate Bill 955 would provide $300,000 to link callers to the program.

A screenshot of the AgriSafe website, where people working in the agricultural field can find mental health support. The company has an established helpline that is currently operating in six states, called AgriStress. Oregon Senate Bill 955 would provide $300,000 to link callers to the program.

Screenshot / AgriSafe.org

It already operates in six states: Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming. But it’s not yet in Oregon or Washington.

Myers said if the Oregon bill passes, a local rancher could call the national 988 suicide prevention line, mention they’re a farmer, then get patched through to AgriStress.

“The other way that it could happen is they could call 988, and it could say, if you’re from a rural or remote or farming community, you could press four,” she said.

Myers said similar helplines, tailored for veterans and Spanish speakers, have shown promise.

“Tailoring gives you a reason to believe,” she said. “It gives you a reason to know that the folks on the other end of the line are like you.”

Operators at AgriStress are trained to understand the importance of keeping farms in a family and the added stress of droughts and heat waves.

Jeff Stone with the Oregon Association of Nurseries is tracking Senate Bill 955. He said the $300,000 cost is comparatively small.

“This has the legs to pass,” Stone said.

Back in Grant County, Jim Hamsher need only look back to the pandemic to remember the severe stress in his own family. His son raises rodeo bulls. When COVID hit, he lost $100,000 in contracts because rodeos shut down. And those massive animals continued to need expensive food every day.

Hamsher said farmers constantly find themselves in tough financial situations. “Their whole livelihood, the whole success of their ranch is interdependent upon the weather,” he said. “We have drought and there are rains and [rising commodity] prices.”

Senate Bill 955 has been sent to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

That means passage is largely a question of whether there will be money available when the budget wrangling begins in earnest at the end of the 2023 Oregon legislative session.

Oregon lawmakers must finish their work by the end of June.

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