Mental health and addiction help: By ag and for ag during wave of rural suicide
The Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program is designed by those in agriculture, for those in agriculture.
There are a host of statistics that illustrate the effect of the stress experienced by agriculture producers and rural residents. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations. The study, which was released in January 2020 prior to the increased chaos wrought by Covid, also found that suicide rates had increased by 40% over the past 20 years. This year, the Colorado agriculture community was rocked by approximately half a dozen deaths by suicide in about as many weeks.
CAAMHP was started as a collaborative effort led by the Colorado Farm Bureau, and included the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, AgrAbility, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and others that partnered together to care for farmers and ranchers who have been most deeply impacted by severe and persistent drought, instability in the commodities market, misinformation targeting consumers, and rapidly changing political climates. The program provides six free vouchers to those in agriculture who reach out for addiction or mental health help from an agriculture friendly, licensed behavior health professional. The service is anonymous and, in many instances, may be accessed remotely.
Rebecca Edlund, the Colorado Farm Bureau’s associate director of technology and membership, said the program was built based upon what farmers and ranchers said such a program would have to be: anonymous, free, accessible without leaving the farm or ranch, and staffed by professionals who understand agriculture. Edlund said she knows too well how averse members of the agriculture community are to speaking about mental health and letting go of stigmas, especially in small communities.
“We should have been talking about this 10 years ago,” she said. “To some degree in ag, we have created this environment, we have said that it’s not okay to ask for help, which is crazy. As agriculturists, we’re the first ones to show up when help is needed. We can no longer hide things behind closed doors — our friends are dying.”
Addiction is included in the program as well, she said, as oftentimes addiction and mental health go hand in hand. Though farmers and ranchers are unique, Edlund said they face the same struggles of addiction, trauma, mental health, and domestic violence as their Front Range counterparts.
Recognizing that the stresses of farming and ranching are foreign to those removed from production agriculture, the participating behavioral health professionals not only seek out the program out of a desire to serve agriculture, but all complete a three-hour agriculture training. The training encompasses basic production methods but also delves into the legacy of farming and ranching, the often-complicated relationships, and tangible exercises farmers and ranchers can take part in relating to the land itself.
Edlund said she was in attendance at a committee meeting and the members were asked how many of them had a connection to someone lost to suicide. In the larger American society, she said about one in 10 people would have raised their hands. In that meeting, every person at the table raised theirs. It was then, she said, CFB began work to provide a tangible resource to the agriculture community.
CAAMHP’s social media presence is just one tool available to help start the conversation about mental health. Edlund said though it may seem cliché, sharing the CAAMHP’s graphics can help spread word of the service and help normalize asking for help. One post that has been particularly well received reads: “Twice as many people in rural communities commit suicide as in other areas. Read that again (most people have already stopped reading). I know there are people hurting in my community! Let’s help each other like we always do in ag.”
The website also has a contact form to request business cards with information about the program that can be posted on the bulletin boards at rural businesses frequented by the agriculture community. The website is also the place to start for farmers and ranchers who need help. Visit CAAMHPforHealth.org to access the service or learn more.
“The message I really want people to hear is that asking for help may be the most courageous thing they do, and it might not just save their life, it might save a friend,” Edlund said. “It won’t happen overnight, but we have to start having the conversation because we’re losing people we care about.”
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