By Lynne Terry
April 27, 2023
Surviving as a farmer takes grit. Profits are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, and a drought has persisted for years. Commodity prices fluctuate, while the costs of fertilizer and other supplies keep going up.
And when those difficulties become overwhelming, agriculture workers don’t run to a therapist, experts say. They bear it alone.
But that stoicism comes with a price: Farmers, fishers and loggers have the highest rate of suicide among all professions in Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority said. More than 70 took their own lives between 2016 and 2020, a rate of 104 people per 100,000. That compares with 21 per 100,000 on average in Oregon in 2020, and 2021 was likely a bad year, too. The health authority said this week in a news release that the number of adult suicides went up in 2021.
But most people have no clue about the toll on agriculture workers, said Todd Nash, a rancher, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and Wallowa County commissioner.
“We have a very big problem in some areas of rural Oregon,” Nash said, especially in Wallowa County. “We’ve had 14 suicides in the last two years with a population of 7,400 people.”
To curb that trend, Oregon lawmakers are considering a proposal to offer a suicide hotline in Oregon tailored to ranchers and farmers. The service, the AgriStress Helpline, exists in six other states – Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, said Allison Myers, associate dean for extension and engagement at Oregon State University.
She’s the prime force behind Senate Bill 955. As the head of a family and community health program, part of her job involves thinking about promoting mental health services and creating conditions for people to experience less stress.
“When I recognized that it wasn’t here and that suicide rates in Oregon have been higher than the national average for a long time, it just felt like we could get this done,” Myers said.
Myers talked to Nash, who persuaded Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, to write the bill. Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, hopped on as a chief sponsor and Democratic Sens. Kayse Jama of Portland, James Manning Jr. of Eugene and Floyd Prozanski of Springfield lent their support.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously at the end of March and now it’s with the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which hammers out the state’s budget.
“I’m so pleased that we’ve gotten bipartisan support,” Myers said.
The AgriStress hotline was created by a group of nonprofits to serve the agricultural community. It is free, staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has services in 160 languages. The hotline mirrors the 988 suicide helpline, with staff trained to respect confidentiality and de-escalate a mental health crisis and direct callers toward ongoing help they might need. But unlike 988 staff, AgriStress call takers are knowledgeable about issues affecting farmers and ranchers.
Nash said that means rural Oregonians, who are used to depending on themselves, would be more likely to call – and be helped – by talking to someone who knows about the effects of climate change or what it’s like trying to secure a loan from a bank, for example.
“It’s really important that you have somebody that understands and speaks the same language,” Nash said. “There’s a different level of communication in being able to empathize with some of those things that somebody else wouldn’t recognize as a problem.”
More money needed
Myers said it would cost $68,000 a year to offer the service in Oregon and that the $300,000 allocation for an endowment would not be enough. It would only produce $12,000 a year, she said. Oregon would need an endowment of $2.5 million to offer the service and inform residents about it in perpetuity, she said.
But $300,000 marks a start, and she’s willing to work on the rest.
“I am determined to raise the rest to establish an endowment, or otherwise fund the helpline,” she said. “We have a long history of writing grants and securing contracts or philanthropic investments, and are working on that angle too. The challenge with grants is the lack of sustainability; an endowment is sustainable.”
She said the service is a natural fit for Oregon State University’s extension service, which serves rural Oregonians and would be in a good position to advertise the service. She said the nonprofit that runs it recommends that states spend as much on promotion as the service.
Nash said the service would be good for the community.
“In a small community, we feel like we’ve lost a family member when somebody loses a family member,” Nash said. “As a community, we feel like we’re failures in some way.”
One of the state’s Medicaid insurers that serves rural Oregon, the Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization, also supports the bill.
“Mental health remains a challenge in many of the communities we serve,” it said in submitted testimony. “This bill will be incredibly impactful for our membership in the eastern part of the state, providing resources and access to trained specialists who understand the needs of this unique community.”
A Wallowa clinic also submitted testimony.
“It is vitally important we create access to care that is specific to this population of workers who do not typically access the health care system in traditional ways,” wrote Chantay Jett, executive director of the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness. “Creating new, confidential paths for folks to reach out when they’re experiencing stressors will help fight against the statistic of males in this industry who are two times more likely to die by suicide than the general population.”
Supporters, including Myers and Nash, are keeping an eye on the bill, hoping it moves out of Ways and Means.
“There’s a giant pile of bills that have gone to Ways and Means,” Nash said. “We hope it doesn’t get lost there.”
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. There’s also a text service that provides emotional support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. Both are free, available 24/7 and confidential.