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Farmers face a higher risk of suicide. What the Texas Department of Agriculture is doing to help

SLATO. Grant Heinrich was working in an office on his family’s farm when he received a text message from one of his closest friends and farmers.

Death note.

Heinrich jumped into his truck and raced to the barn. The roads of West Texas seemed to him like a tunnel surrounded by washed-out walls of crops.

“The only thing I thought about was to hurry up and get there,” Heinrich said. “I burst a hose on my truck, but I knew that if I was late, I would beat myself up for it for the rest of my life.”

Suicide seemed like a plague to Henry’s family. He lost his uncle 24 years ago. Then one of his cousins, whom Heinrich saw as a superhero, died nine years ago. Two years later, another cousin committed suicide.

“I saw too much pain for the rest of my family,” he said.

For the past two decades, suicide rates have been higher in rural communities than in urban areas. And it’s getting worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased by 46% in rural America compared to a 27.3% increase in urban areas. And rural residents are 1.5 times more likely to go to the emergency room for cases of self-mutilation.

According to the National Rural Health Association, this rate is higher for farmers, 3.5 times higher than for the general population.

Advocates suggest that because farmers face multiple economic problems that are not within their control and are unwilling to share their problems, they are less likely to seek help. When they do this, there may be very few options available because the services available in rural communities are limited.

To close access gaps, the Texas Department of Agriculture is asking the Texas Legislature to support a $500,000-a-year Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program. This money will help pay for a toll free telephone helpline for all agricultural workers, their families and residents of their communities. The program was launched in February last year thanks to a federal grant and offers callers psychological and financial resources.

“Some people just want to talk and maybe they don’t have an emotional crisis,” said Trish Rivera, a rural health specialist who oversees the program. “But they need someone to talk about what they’re going through so they don’t get to that stage.”

“In the middle of nowhere”

When Heinrich thinks of the three dead members of his family, he inevitably wonders if he could have made a difference. This thought haunts many people who have lost loved ones to suicide: is there a magical golden hour to convince someone to stay alive?

This question, along with his grief, swarmed in Heinrich’s mind for years. He thought about it again as he raced towards the barn in hopes of stopping his friend.

“I was so scared of what I was going to walk up and find,” he said.

He found his friend with a weapon in his hand and was able to calm him down.

“I was so grateful that he was alive.”

Heinrich is the manager of Pro-Agri Spraying in Slaton, a town of about 6,000 people located 17 miles southeast of Lubbock. He also became a mental health advocate and helped push the AgriStress helpline to reach the state’s rural communities. Heinrich’s Seeding and Spraying division, like the rest of the industry, was under financial pressure from last year’s poor growing season. A historic drought has wiped out crops across the state and left farmers watching the dry soil on their lands blown away by the wind.

Part of the problem, Heinrich says, is the sheer isolation that farm life can bring.

“You are so far from other people,” Heinrich said. “It’s not like you’re walking down the street and someone stops you to say hello. These people are in the middle of nowhere, and half the time they have already made up their minds.”

Mark Rogers


Texas Tribune

First: Grant Heinrich in the field next to his business in Slayton, November. Last: Heinrich in his office at Slayton. “It is not a weakness to turn to a professional who is not your spouse or best friend,” Heinrich said.

The Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program was created in 2021 after State Senator Roland Gutierrez, Democrat of San Antonio, added language to the Department of Agriculture’s so-called Sunset Law, a law that allows the department to exist and defines his work. it should do. He said he plans to support the ministry’s request for funding this year.

“There are simply no mental health services in rural areas,” Gutiérrez told The Texas Tribune. “When you look at those who live there, you have people who are farmers or work on farms and they have crop failures away from family ruin.”

It was not originally funded, but the department won a one-time grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The state Department of Agriculture partnered with the nonprofit AgriSafe Network, which helped launch similar programs in Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming. Rivera said the goal is both to provide help and resources to those who need it, and to destigmatize mental health talk in an industry that doesn’t usually talk about it.

“Farming is a culture where you don’t really talk about your feelings, and we want to change that,” Rivera said. “We want people to feel comfortable asking for help.”

The Department promotes the program where farmers can see it, such as at stock shows and district extension agencies, as well as local newspapers, schools, and farming organizations. This will be enhanced by additional funding that the ministry is confident will come in the legislative session.

“We will make an ongoing effort to get that message across to our producers and really work towards changing the culture,” Rivera said.

What makes the helpline unique is who is on the other side of the call: Nearly 250 mental health professionals have been trained through the program to understand the various stresses farmers and ranchers face. This includes the weather, crop prices, tariffs, and other matters.

“It’s important for whoever is responding to be informed and culturally competent to be able to talk about what they’re going through,” Rivera said. “This is a good resource for anyone who leads a rural life.”

Rivera estimates that since the hotline launched in February, it has received at least 60 calls. Following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalda last May, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller opened a helpline to all residents of the area.

Heinrich believes the program can help farmers be less afraid to seek help.

“It is not a weakness to turn to a professional who is not your spouse or best friend,” Heinrich said. “It’s important to just tell someone, ‘Hey, you’re not alone, there’s a lot of people here who are hurting.’

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

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