WA to study viability of ag mental health hotline

OLYMPIA — In a move aimed at supporting farmers amid rising demands for mental health resources, the Washington state legislature allocates funds in the fiscal year 2025 budget to establish a workgroup. This group will specifically concentrate on mental health and suicide prevention within the agricultural community, aiming to address privacy and accessibility concerns.

“We are trying to put together a task force to study the effectiveness of having a hotline for our agricultural communities in the state of Washington. For those of us that live in rural communities this affects all of us,” said Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake.

Farmers are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide compared to any other occupational group, according to researchers. This heightened risk is attributed to factors such as financial stress, vulnerability to changing weather events, the demanding nature of farming labor, and limited access to mental health services, according to the National Rural Health Association.

Unique challenges have become an added stress for farmers. For some, isolation has intensified their struggles, particularly with the market’s unpredictability and limited access to resources, especially in rural communities.

“Many farmers and ranchers work long hours by themselves as they tend to their crops and livestock. This isolation, paired with the extreme stress of unpredictable markets and other agricultural stressors, takes a toll on our agricultural communities. Farmers and producers may also have little or no health insurance and may be located far from health clinics which are additional barriers to accessing necessary services,” said Alyssa Wade, Washington State University Farm Stress and Suicide Prevention coordinator for Eastern Washington.

To mitigate the need for mental health resources, the fiscal year 2025 budget allocates $250,000 from the general fund for the establishment of a work group focused on mental health and suicide prevention within the agricultural community. This task force will assess the necessity of creating a mental health hotline specifically for agricultural producers, farm workers, and their families.

“We’re more towards the beginning than the end. It’s going to be a matter of getting everyone into the same room,” said Don McMoran, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Faculty County Extension Director. “The plan is to use the previous dollars to seek what the need is in agriculture so we can build something from the ground up and then work with existing providers.”

Current efforts

In tandem with these efforts, the Washington State University Farm Stress & Suicide Prevention program has joined forces with the Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program to deliver suicide prevention training, increase awareness, and provide culturally tailored resources. They do not operate as a crisis center, instead, they operate as an outreach program.

The partnership between WSU and WRASAP aims to enhance the mental health and well-being of agricultural workers while simultaneously reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Through both online outreach and in-person engagement, the collaboration aims to foster connections among individuals and communities.

WSU Extension’s Farm Stress & Suicide Prevention program, a pilot program that operates under the WSU Extension adapts and partners with local leaders to improve communities through economic growth and improving family health and to help producers succeed. This includes free therapy, financial consulting, and many other resources for farmers.

According to mental health experts, there is a recognized need for individuals who can understand the daily realities and challenges experienced by farmers. According to the extension, this understanding is crucial in bridging the gap between the recognition of agricultural workers’ needs and the provision of resources.

Emily Whittier, WSU Farm Stress Coordinator for Southern Central Washington, said the term to describe that concept is “cultural competence.”

“Having somebody that understands those unique stressors and can give them options that make sense for their life, is going to keep them coming back for more resources and more information to help them vs. pushing them away or making them feel alienated or uncomfortable and then they are not getting any help,” said Wade.

In their line of work, Wade and Whittier said there has been a shift over the two years they’ve been involved with the program, observing increased openness to discussions about farmer stress. Both regularly attend producer conferences and notice individuals returning, allowing them to address needs and gather feedback effectively.

Materials such as refrigerator magnets to connect stressed ag professionals with resources are one way Whittier and others open conversations about the topic.

“In the past, the cell phone magnet with the 988 number appeared to be more approachable than the other magnet. This time, people were noticing the suicide hotline magnet and they were starting conversations with me based on seeing the suicide prevention resources first, rather than the farm stress resources then leading to that conversation,” said Whittier.

Next steps?

The ultimate objective of the task force is to assess the viability of implementing a hotline specifically tailored for agricultural communities that would provide access to a crisis line staffed by trained individuals.

The workgroup will produce a draft report summarizing their recommendations by Dec. 31, 2024, with a final report due by June 30, 2025. The composition of the workgroup includes members from both legislative caucuses, mental health care providers from both Western and Eastern Washington, representatives from agricultural organizations, and members appointed by the department.