Farmer suicide prevention program going strong

MOUNT VERNON — In the three years since the Washington State University Skagit County Extension started a program for suicide prevention in the agricultural community, progress is being made.

“It’s been challenging, but it’s been very rewarding,” Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran said. “We’re having a huge impact.”

Formed in the spring of 2019, the program was able to expand in 2021 with the help of a $7.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.

This grant allowed the extension to join other educational institutions and organizations to form the Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program that addresses suicide prevention in agricultural communities in 13 states and four territories.

Though in only three years it is hard to get hard data about how many people have been helped by the program, Program Coordinator Julie Jesmer said she often hears anecdotal evidence about how the program is making a difference in starting conversations about mental health.

At the start, the focus was largely on suicide prevention. While that is still a focus, Jesmer said much of the outreach now being done is on coping strategies.

“That is one major change that we’ve seen with the program,” she said.

A survey by the Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program asked farmers about their stressors and how they would most like to receive information about coping strategies.

Jesmer said she was shocked when the survey showed that most farmers would prefer to receive the information online. She had been expecting that farmers would prefer to receive the information in person.

“We speculate that that’s related to the stigmatism,” she said.

Due to this response, the Stress Assistance Program went about funding podcasts on mental health and wellness relating to the agricultural community.

“Using a podcast … that would be unheard of five years ago,” Jesmer said.

Interviews from the survey are still being analyzed, and Jesmer hopes they will reveal more information. A similar survey for farmworkers is open until March.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant ends in September, but those running the program are hopeful that more funding will become available with the 2023 Farm Bill.

“I look at all the programs, and if the funding goes away then what happens?” Jesmer said. “I think that would be disastrous.”

The goal is to continue conversations about mental health and suicide prevention for farmers among those in the agricultural community and the general public.

Jesmer is looking forward to two trainings that are under development.

The first is called Changing Our Mental and Emotional Trajectory — or COMET.

This is an interactive training that is created for farmers by farmers. Here farmers can gather in a group to talk about their stressors and how they cope.

The second new training, called Land Logic, uses farmers’ connection to their land by using images to explore resilience when it comes to stressors.

These are both in addition to existing programs, such as the free suicide prevention training.

Amber Beane, who works for the extension in marketing and communication support, said that during suicide prevention training the group practices asking questions such as “Have you ever considered killing yourself?”

“It’s hard to say, but it’s so important,” Beane said.

She said these trainings help educate participants on the signs and stigma of farmer suicide.

“We need more human-ness,” Beane said. “We demand such perfection from our farmers.”

In addition to expanding trainings, Jesmer said she like to increase access to mental health centers.

Farmers are able to get vouchers for six free therapy sessions, but because few clinics are knowledgeable in agricultural matters, only telehealth appointments are offered through the Washington State University Psychology Clinic.

Jesmer said farming is always near the top of occupations with a high suicide rate, largely due to how many stressors are out of the control of farmers and because of the stigma that goes with talking about mental health.

Starting conversations about mental health is a big step in breaking down the stigma.

“You’re taught from a very young age to keep a stiff upper lip and not talk about your problems,” McMoran said.

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