State works to implement mental health pilot program to help farmers and ranchers

    There's a lot of factors that can contribute to a farmer or rancher's mental health, including the financial burden and potential for losses, the isolation and even severe weather.

    Agriculture is one of Washington's biggest industries, making up about 13 percent of the state's economy.

    But it's also facing some challenges, one of which is suicide.

    There's a lot of factors that can effect a farmer or rancher's mental health, including the financial burden and potential for losses, the isolation and even severe weather.

    All that stress and anxiety can sometimes prove too much.

    “Most of us farmers and ranchers don’t like to call for help,” says Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation. He's also a farmer in Western Washington.

    He adds: "Because a farm and a ranch is so much of who you are that they’re intertwined and so your financial health and your emotional health area. They’re one in the same.”

    For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the farming, fishing and forestry industries had the highest rate of suicides by major occupation.

    The CDC later retracted and redid their study in 2018. Now farming, fishing and forestry is ranked number nine, while management, which farmers and ranchers are categorized under, sits at #15.

    But even though the rankings changed, the issue is still far too common.

    It's also one that Gordon is incredibly passionate about for very personal reasons: “About 10, 12 years ago, my neighbor was a dairy farmer and committed suicide and I was pretty good friends with him."

    Washington state legislators decided to do something about it last year by passing a bill to build a pilot program aimed at helping improve the behavioral health of folks in the agriculture industry.

    Gordon is co-chair for the committee working on the program.

    He says this isn't the first time the state's had a program for counseling farmers and ranchers. Back in the mid-2000's, it was the Family Farm Support Network in Wenatchee.

    “I think in the 2 1/2, three years we ran the Family Farm Support Network, they ended up handling I think somewhere around 650 phones calls and requests for help.”

    Gordon says the farthest call came from a farmer in Ireland.

    Now he says the committee plans to use the old program as a blueprint for the new.

    This time it’ll be based in Western Washington's farming core in Mount Vernon.

    Gordon says it's a good location thanks to partnerships with WSU and the Northwest Agriculture Business Center.

    The program will also have a phone line so that anyone - from farm workers to the ranch wife - can call for help and resources.

    That includes figuring out a financial plan or even just talking to someone that knows where they're coming from.

    That understanding is necessary since Gordon says ag workers tend to not seek out behavorial help.

    “They don’t tend to, ‘Hey, you know, I think I’ll get up, change the oil on the tractor and call a help counseling hotline.’ That’s just wasn’t the way that my grandfather thought and unfortunately that wasn’t the way that my neighbor thought.

    Gordon hopes to have the pilot program up and running by this spring.

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