The AgriStress Helpline: A Resource Made for Ag
Drought, dismal prices, pest infestations, and work-related injuries. These stressors are familiar to farmers and agriculture communities and represent only a few of farming’s countless challenges. Add on top of it the pressure to feed the world, carry on the family legacy, or live up to the stereotypical “farmer’s perseverance,” and it’s easy for the stress and worry to build to crisis levels, especially when you may feel like there is no one to turn to for support.
One anonymous farmer shared their experience with the AgriSafe Network. Distressed and overwhelmed, this farmer said they felt like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders, carrying the bulk of work on their family farm. For this farmer, their business had become a burden, and they felt like there were no options left. Drowning in the weight of these responsibilities, they were fighting to keep their head above water.
This farmer is not alone. Since 2000, rates of suicide have risen across the country, with rural communities being significantly affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, and suicide rates have increased by 46% in rural areas, compared to 27.3% in metro areas. Additionally, the CDC reports that residents of rural communities are 1.5 times more likely to visit the emergency room for self-harm.
Farmers not only have one of the highest rates of injuries and fatalities across all age groups, but they are also twice as likely to die by suicide than people in other occupations.
Experts and mental health advocates say that farmers often face financial pressures beyond their control that contribute to more stress and poorer mental well-being. Additionally, a fear of being stigmatized or judged often keeps farmers and people in rural communities from reaching out for help. When they do reach out, they may struggle to find adequate care due to a shortage of healthcare access in rural areas.
These observations and reports may sound familiar to you, and maybe you recognize yourself or a friend or fellow ag worker in these figures and stories. There are tools and resources available to help you when you’re at your lowest. You’re not alone, and you matter. One major resource at your disposal is the AgriStress Helpline from the AgriSafe Network.
The AgriSafe Network is a non-profit organization representing health professionals and educators and providing occupational health services to farmers and ag communities.
To provide more support and assistance, the AgriSafe Network collaborates with multiple state Departments of Agriculture and advocacy groups to expand access, education, and support. For instance, the Texas Department of Agriculture launched the Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program in February 2022 in partnership with the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention, and Education (SW Ag Center) and the AgriSafe Network. Together, the groups established the free and confidential AgriStress Helpline of Texas.
The AgriStress Helpline is the first 24/7 ag-focused crisis line, offering lifeline services, emotional support, and various resources to anyone in the ag community. Although the AgriStress Helpline is now available in Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming, anyone from anywhere can call and receive care. The AgriSafe Network continues to work with state Departments of Ag to expand access.
According to the SW Ag Center, the crisis call center for the AgriStress Helpline is staffed by VIA LINK, a non-profit accredited by the American Association of Suicidology and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. “The crisis support specialists who answer the line are all certified in FarmResponse, a continuing education course which provides the full range of competencies necessary for serving farmers, ranchers, fishers, foresters, and loggers,” the SW Ag Center explains. “All specialists have over 300 hours of evidence-based training in crisis support and de-escalation.”
Callers can receive help or emergency care and speak to a crisis specialist trained specifically in agriculture and on current emergency and industry topics at any time on any day with translation services in 160 languages. Call and text is currently available in English and will be expanded to Spanish and Vietnamese at the end of the month.
Struggling to keep their head above water, the anonymous farmer mentioned earlier decided to call the AgriStress Helpline for support. Through that call, they received emotional support and found a compassionate listening ear. The farmer was also given local resources for long-term mental health support in their area that they could connect with after the call.
“The call crisis specialists meet every caller where they are,” says Tara Haskins, the Total Farmer Health Director at AgriSafe Network. “An individual may just need to talk to someone, or there may be someone who is actually having thoughts or is at high risk of suicide; we [can get] emergency services to that person.”
Haskins adds that the Helpline can activate the 911s in each state where it is currently available. Additionally, every person who calls is offered a 24-hour follow-up call and can choose whether to take that follow-up. After that first follow-up, they’ll then be offered another one.
“Ideally, someone can speak to someone on the crisis line every day of that week, if they desired or needed to, while we’re trying to get them to services, because sometimes when an individual is in that height of the crisis, they may be not ready for services,” she says.
The AgriStress Helpline offers support and resources beyond mental health. VIA LINK, the Departments of Agriculture, and the AgriSafe Network work closely, meeting almost every month, to monitor and discuss any upticks in calls surrounding specific problems—like drought or difficulties finding farmworkers. The AgriSafe Network then curates resources for the call staff to reference for each state.
“So, not only do [the call staff] have mental health resources available to those state residents that could be helpful, we also get all of the agriculture resources—the numbers to call for remediation, drought resources, disaster lines,” Haskins explains. “It’s a very interlinked relationship that makes this line unique.”
The SW Ag Center specifies that there is no limit to how many times someone may call the line, nor is there a limit on call duration. “All callers receive care that is specific to their needs—whether that is a risk assessment, emergency services, emotional support, or connection to resources,” the organization explains.
The AgriStress Helpline is not just for people experiencing stress, anxiety, or a crisis; it can also be used to help someone you know, love, or work alongside.
“Probably on about 25%, or sometimes 30%, of calls, we have individuals that are calling on behalf of someone else, just wanting to know what’s this line about, ‘is this something I can give to a friend,’ or ‘I’m worried about this person,’” Haskins says. “The line can also help them navigate that [concern], and that is really critical because a lot of individuals may reach out to family or friends first. So, we want to give [those friends or family] the next steps.”
Supporting each other in the agricultural community can be as simple as asking another person how they’re doing or telling them you’re worried about them.
“When you are working shoulder to shoulder with people and you recognize that you have concerns for someone else, share that. Express it,” Haskins recommends. “Sometimes that simple act can release so much pressure for that individual. Because when you experience extreme stress, you can’t see your options. It’s kinda like your brain gets tunnel vision, and all you can focus on is the event right now that is creating so many problems in your life, and it may totally blind you to what your options can be.”
Signs of stress or a mental health crisis may start small and build up over time. You might not be at the point where that one issue is blinding you to your options, or you might not understand why mental well-being is so essential. Ultimately, your mental well-being impacts everything, not just your physical health.
“If a farmer or rancher, if they’re driving a piece of equipment and they hear something that doesn’t sound right in that engine, they know that if they continue to work that piece of equipment without trying to figure out what the problem is, that piece of equipment is going to break down,” Haskins explains. “So, they need to think in terms of their own body as a machine and paying attention to those warning lights and get those things checked early on because that can save them time away from work, it can save them money, and it can save them further stress in the long run.”
The AgriStress Helpline is available to anyone at any time, any day of the week—no matter if it’s in your state or not. It’s one resource you can use to help take care of your mental well-being. As Haskins puts it, you are your most valuable asset. By protecting your mental well-being, you preserve your entire health.
“Understand this needs to be an ongoing [process], just like if you were taking care of your physical health. Make sure that you go for your check-ups, check in with yourself, take care of yourself…whatever it is that you can do to provide you that space so that you can recharge,” she says. “And also look out for your neighbors and your family members and be willing to reach out to help.”