Lawmakers Seek Remedy for High Suicide Rates Among Farmers

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By Lynne Terry

Surviving as a farmer takes grit. Profits are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, and a drought has persisted for years. Commodity prices fluctuate, while the costs of fertilizer and other supplies keep going up.

And when those difficulties become overwhelming, agriculture workers don’t run to a therapist, experts say. They bear it alone.

But that stoicism comes with a price: Farmers, fishers and loggers have the highest rate of suicide among all professions in Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority said. More than 70 took their own lives between 2016 and 2020, a rate of 104 people per 100,000. That compares with 21 per 100,000 on average in Oregon in 2020, and 2021 was likely a bad year, too. The health authority said this week in a news release that the number of adult suicides went up in 2021.

But most people have no clue about the toll on agriculture workers, said Todd Nash, a rancher, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and Wallowa County commissioner.

“We have a very big problem in some areas of rural Oregon,” Nash said, especially in Wallowa County. “We’ve had 14 suicides in the last two years with a population of 7,400 people.”

To curb that trend, Oregon lawmakers are considering a proposal to offer a suicide hotline in Oregon tailored to ranchers and farmers. The service, the AgriStress Helpline, exists in six other states – Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, said Allison Myers, associate dean for extension and engagement at Oregon State University.

She’s the prime force behind Senate Bill 955. As the head of a family and community health program, part of her job involves thinking about promoting mental health services and creating conditions for people to experience less stress.

“When I recognized that it wasn’t here and that suicide rates in Oregon have been higher than the national average for a long time, it just felt like we could get this done,” Myers said.

Myers talked to Nash, who persuaded Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, to write the bill. Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, hopped on as a chief sponsor and Democratic Sens. Kayse Jama of Portland, James Manning Jr. of Eugene and Floyd Prozanski of Springfield lent their support.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously at the end of March and now it’s with the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which hammers out the state’s budget.

“I’m so pleased that we’ve gotten bipartisan support,” Myers said.

The AgriStress hotline was created by a group of nonprofits to serve the agricultural community. It is free, staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has services in 160 languages. The hotline mirrors the 988 suicide helpline, with staff trained to respect confidentiality and de-escalate a mental health crisis and direct callers toward ongoing help they might need. But unlike 988 staff, AgriStress call takers are knowledgeable about issues affecting farmers and ranchers.

Nash said that means rural Oregonians, who are used to depending on themselves, would be more likely to call – and be helped – by talking to someone who knows about the effects of climate change or what it’s like trying to secure a loan from a bank, for example.

“It’s really important that you have somebody that understands and speaks the same language,” Nash said. “There’s a different level of communication in being able to empathize with some of those things that somebody else wouldn’t recognize as a problem.”

For the complete story, see the Oregon Capital Chronicle.