State launches mental health hotline for farmers

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Missouri has a new mental health hotline for one of its most distressed populations: farmers and ranchers.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture on Monday launched the AgriStress Helpline, a free and confidential mental health service that connects agricultural producers and rural families with agricultural mental health professionals. The number to call or text is 833-897-2474.

The line is open and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There is a mental health crisis in rural Missouri, according to a 2020 collaborative report.

“Rising Stress on the Farm: Expanding Economic and Mental Health Disparities in Rural Missouri” was produced by the Missouri Hospital Association, Missouri Department of Mental Health, Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare, Missouri Farm Bureau and the University of Missouri Extension and published in 2020. It provided the state with a comprehensive overview of growing mental health issues among agricultural producers in Missouri.

The problem is twofold, according to the report. Farmers bear the stress and insecurity inherent in agricultural production, which is compounded by a lack of access to behavioral health care.

Extreme weather events, economic pressures and foreign trade policies have combined to produce a series of lean years producers haven’t seen since the 1980s, contributing to depression rates and significantly higher suicide rates among rural producers compared to urban residents.

“A career in agriculture is not for the faint of heart. Unpredictable weather, market volatility, fluctuating costs, government regulations and long working hours can put a strain on our growers and their families. “MDA Director Chris Chinn said in a press release on Monday. “We know that producers pride themselves on their ability to handle difficult circumstances, which can lead to stigma around seeking mental health support. But there’s nothing wrong with needing to Our goal is to ensure that free, confidential support is available to Missouri farmers, ranchers, and members of the rural community through the AgriStress Helpline.”

The suicide rate in rural counties in Missouri is growing 50% faster than the rate in urban counties, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2020 data.

About 3,780 residents of rural Missouri died by suicide between 2003 and 2017. The death rate per 100,000 rural residents was 12 in 2003, but jumped to 21.3 per 100,000 in 2017. This represents an increase of 78 % in 14 years, while the urban rate increased by 52% during the same period.

Rural males had the highest suicide rate in Missouri with just over 35 deaths per 100,000 population. The rate for rural males was double the rate for males statewide and five times the rate for rural females. There were 329 suicide deaths in rural Missouri in 2017 and 84% of them were male.

The problem is compounded by the lack of mental health resources in rural parts of the state.

Missouri has 3.7% of the recommended supply of mental health professionals needed to serve its population, according to 2020 data from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

According to the HRSA, all of Missouri’s 99 rural counties face a shortage of mental health professionals, including 57 counties that have no licensed psychologists or psychiatrists at all.

Even with the resources in place, the prevailing stigma around seeking help for mental health issues likely prevents many from trying, according to the Growing Stress on the Farm report.

“In the farming and ranching community, we’re raised to be tough. We’re raised to put our heads down and stay on the job and keep on working,” said MDA spokesperson Christi Miller. “But it’s okay to ask for help. And that’s what we want to encourage people. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help.”

Miller said the department promotes the AgriStress Helpline through a dedicated website, partnerships with other state agencies, social media, media campaigns and public outreach during of the State Fair this week.

Missouri launched another hotline program in July.

The 988 Suicide and Mental Health Crisis Hotline connects directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to provide callers with free, confidential 24-hour care.

Although 988 is a nationwide initiative, calls made in the state are directed to one of Missouri’s seven crisis centers, where specialists are trained to listen, provide support and connect the caller to resources. They can also send mobile crisis intervention teams. Approximately 253,000 contacts are expected for the first year of the program.

Miller said the 988 number and the AgriStress Helpline are beneficial resources helping reach more Missourians struggling with mental health issues, but the AgriStress Helpline is specifically for farmers and ranchers because the healthcare professionals on the other end know the day-to-day challenges producers face.

“They understand agriculture. They understand Missouri agriculture,” she said. “So that’s the difference. The other option is a wonderful option, and we love that anyone can get help at any time.”

The helpline is part of the AgriSafe Network, a non-profit organization made up of healthcare professionals and educators united around a goal of reducing health disparities in rural communities.

Missouri received a federal grant to offer the hotline as a way to address farmer stress and suicide. Grant funds will also be used to distribute mental health resources and provide training through MU Extension.

Miller said agriculture and ranching is a continually difficult industry.

This year alone, the agriculture industry, Missouri’s largest industry, has seen rising costs for farm inputs and fuel, as well as droughts and floods in different parts of the state.

“It just seems like one thing after another for the farming community,” Miller said. “So we’re just trying to talk with people that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just for years that the producers weren’t as comfortable making phone calls and weren’t as comfortable reaching out, but I think the tide is definitely changing.”

Miller said if the helpline helps even one person, it has served its purpose. But ultimately, the ministry wants to help as many people as possible.

“The number of suicides in the agricultural community in the country is high,” she said. “They are too high. One is too many.”

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