AgriStress Helpline: Farmers, ranchers addressing resilience and mental health awareness

Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 6:24 PM CDT
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MIDLAND, Texas (KOSA) - One helpline is addressing mental health and suicide prevention in the agriculture field.

Suicide prevention month is ending, but one program wants to raise awareness about its availability. It’s the AgriStress Helpline, a 24/7 resource that connects farmers and ranchers with a listening ear that understands the industry.

For many ranchers and farmers, this isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. One that comes with many factors that are out of their control.

For Matt Norton, every day offers a problem to solve. It’s his favorite part of the job, but it can also be stressful.

“At the end of the day, we don’t know what the weather’s going to do,” Norton said. “We don’t know what the markets are going to do. We don’t know what the world economy is going to do.”

For example, in May, the outlook for cotton looked much different.

“And the rainfall shut off at the end of May, it was just devastating,” Norton said. “Then to follow up with the 115 degree heat for 50-something days. That was just brutal.”

Now, West Texas is facing a drought. Chief meteorologist Tom Tefertiller says we’re on track to experience one of the driest years, if not the driest.

Situations like this mean it takes heartiness and endurance to work in this industry. It’s a culture that relies on resilience.

“Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. Rub dirt on it. It’ll be fine,” said Tiffany Lashmet, an associate professor and specialist for Texas AgriLife A&M Extension.

Sid Miller agrees.

“Ag people are very resilient. We pull ourselves up, shake the dust off and we try to climb the hill again,” said Miller, a commissioner for the Texas Department of Agriculture.

That independence persists across situations, according to Norton.

“Farmers and ranchers, you can’t even get us to go to the doctor, much less talk about mental health,” Norton said. “...We get hurt. We work hurt. We work sick. We’ll cut our hands open. We’ll put electrical tape on it and keep on going.”

That culture makes it tough to talk about mental health and the stigma that comes along with it.

About 43 per 100,000 male farmers and ranchers die by suicide, according to the National Rural Health Association. That’s compared to about 27 per 100,000 people in all other occupations.

This problem needed a unique solution, according to Miller, an eighth generation farmer and rancher.

“We need something more specific,” Miller said. “You can call 988, that’s just a suicide hotline, but the person on the other end of that line really doesn’t know anything about agriculture or the stresses this farmer or rancher might be going through.”

He’s trying to spread the word about the 24/7 AgriStress Helpline.

“We’ve got everything up and running,” Miller said. “Now we just need to let people know about it.”

Lashmet says talking about mental health in general can also help. She recalls a quote she was once told.

“When we recover loudly, it helps others not to struggle silently,” Lashmet said. “And so I do think we need to think about when we’re willing to share our story, when we’re willing to share our struggles that helps our neighbors.”

Nonetheless, the privacy of the helpline is valuable.

“Farmers and ranchers are pretty strong willed. We don’t really like to show our emotions,” Norton said. “So having a hotline that you could call and talk to anonymously, I think is a really good way to do that.”

Even if it isn’t a common topic, Norton says the local farm community is caring and checks in with each other.

No matter the conditions, he says the industry way is to remain hopeful.

“Our goal is to always get to come back and farm next year, because our famous last words are ‘it’s gonna be better next year,’” Norton said.

To reach the AgriStress Helpline you can dial 833-897-2474. It’s offered in Connecticut, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.

To reach the national lifeline, dial 988.