By GEORGE PLAVEN | Capital Press | Sep 5, 2023
SALEM — A 24/7 suicide prevention hotline geared specifically for agricultural workers is now available in Oregon.
State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 955 earlier this year, providing $300,000 in an endowment to Oregon State University to implement the AgriStress Helpline. Gov. Tina Kotek signed the bill into law at a ceremony on Thursday, July 20, in Prairie City.
TheAgriStress Helpline was created by AgriSafe Network, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health and safety of agricultural workers living in rural communities.
Specialists at the helpline receive 300-plus hours of training from licensed clinicians to understand the unique stresses and challenges of farming, ranching, fishing and forestry. They can also refer callers to mental health resources and care providers in their area.
Allison Myers, associate dean of extension and engagement at the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said agricultural workers are more vulnerable to suicide compared to the general population. According to the National Rural Health Association, the rate of suicide for farmers is more than three times higher than the national average per capita.
“They’re often more rural, which means you have more limited access to care,” Myers said. “They also face unique stressors on the job. The hours are very long, the financial overlays are difficult and there are risks involved given unknowns on the economics of a situation.”
There is also a more pronounced and self-imposed stigma that farmers and ranchers attach to experiencing mental health challenges, Myers said. However, the reality is that 1 in 5 people in the U.S. struggle with a mental health condition.
“It could happen to anybody at any point in their lives. It doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
The purpose of the hotline is to help those in crisis talk through what they are feeling and de-escalate suicidal thoughts, Myers said.
“It is the human connection that can help them get through that awful moment,” she said.
The helpline is now available in seven states: Oregon, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wyoming and Connecticut. A coalition of 27 farm groups and health care organizations advocated passage of SB 955, which allocated $300,000 from the state general fund for an endowment to the OSU Foundation.
Money from the endowment will go to OSU Extension Service to administer the helpline.
Myers, who also leads the OSU Extension Family and Community Health program, said it costs $70,000 per year to keep the helpline running. She raised an additional $68,000 from the Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization and Roundhouse Foundation to establish the line in Oregon.
The endowment returns about 4%, or $12,000 per year, to run the line. Myers said she will continue fundraising, and she encouraged anyone interested in donating to the endowment.
“I believe very strongly in my role, and this is the kind of work that helps us meet our land grant mission to serve the people of Oregon,” she said.
Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner and president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he was grateful for the “heroic” efforts to pass SB 955 before the end of the 2023 legislative session. The bill was one of the last to pass out of the House.
“This is an important subject matter that nobody really wants to talk about,” Nash said. “But it is important that we make this something that is front and center. It affects our families, it affects our communities, it affects our industry, and we want to bring more attention to suicide and the prevention of it.”