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Home » A Mental-Health Hotline Just for Farmers – The Atlantic

A Mental-Health Hotline Just for Farmers – The Atlantic

Droughts, pests, and slim margins threaten farmers’ mental health. To help, five states are piloting a unique hotline.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
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 says. “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 was lucky to be alive.
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.
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 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. But they might talk to 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, watching crops wither during drought. “There are so many factors in agriculture that are out of their control,” says Tara Haskins, who runs AgriSafe’s mental-health programming and helpline. “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.”
AgriStress line callers will receive a more personalized response. Although the line offers the same suicide-prevention services as 988—making sure callers 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 the common stressors.
Read: Can three numbers stem the tide of American suicides?
Clinton Wilson, the 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 says.
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 percent gain in calls every month since they launched earlier this year. Farm-labor help, crisis de-escalation, and financial assistance 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 says.
Other mental-health lines are relatively underused, considering the need. According to Vibrant, the organization that administers the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, the line receives about 3.5 million calls a year—a small fraction of the total number of 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?” says Natalie Roy, the executive director of AgriSafe. “That’s hard to measure.”
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 says, 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 such as 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 says. “Once you ask [for help], then you get to start the journey and work through things.”

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