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Harvest 2020 at Deardorff Farms in Colville.
Photo by Jayson Deardorff

Wilbur-Ellis

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Holding out a hand

Suicide prevention program is dedicated to helping farmers who are in crisis

May 2021
By Trista Crossley


You can’t really put a price on a life, but Don McMoran is hoping that $7.18 million is a substantial start.

McMoran, director of the Washington State University (WSU) Skagit County Extension office, is parlaying a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) into expanding a program that offers assistance and resources to farmers and farmworkers who are struggling with mental stress and thoughts of suicide. It’s an issue that hits home for him. When he was a sophomore in college, a hired man on his parents’ Skagit County farm took his own life.

“I had no idea his decision would have such a major impact on my own life. I always think about why he did what he did,” McMoran explained. “When I took the job here in 2006, I was noticing there were some suicides happening in the county, but between 2016 and 2019, we had three of them in agriculture, and the third one was a gentleman I worked with at the Skagit Conservation District.”

Shortly after that third death, McMoran met with the man’s niece and her twins (who were the same age as McMoran’s own twins). That meeting was, as he put it, the final straw.

“I came back to the office that Monday, and I got together with my staff and said, ‘Enough. I don’t ever want to see another agricultural suicide in my county. Would you join with me in trying to stop this epidemic?’ They agreed, and rest is kind of history,” he said.

At that same time, the Washington State Legislature was putting together a task force to look at agricultural suicide prevention. Funding was eventually allocated to the Washington State Department of Health (WSDH).

“The WSDH, although they are fabulous people and they do a great job on all things health, they really didn’t know how to go about educating farmers and farmworkers in regard to farm stress and suicide prevention. We were kind of on the sidelines waving our hands saying ‘me, me. This is something we want to get involved in.’ We got together and decided that it would be great for our little Extension office to be able to start a pilot program with the intent of growing that pilot program and trying to service more people within Washington state for farm stress and suicide prevention,” McMoran said.

That pilot program began in 2019 with a website and promotional material. Suicide prevention education was incorporated into Extension workshops. McMoran said he received positive feedback from his farmers, especially that the information was really going to “help their neighbor.

“That’s just kind of the stigma that is associated with suicide prevention,” McMoran said. “You are taught from a very young age as a farm kid that there are things we don’t talk about in our family. You keep a stiff upper lip. It’s been fun to try to work through some of those stigmas and educate folks and let them know it’s okay to seek out help. But when you start sitting down with farmers and saying you think they should see a counselor, those are fighting words for some people. You have to admit you have a problem first, and that’s really difficult for a lot of our farmers.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting as industries with significantly higher rates of suicide than the national average. Farmers face a daunting gauntlet of low prices, increasing input costs, unpredictable weather, uncertain market conditions and the pressure to keep the family farm afloat for the next generation, not to mention a global pandemic. The American Farm Bureau Federation did a survey at the end of last year asking rural adults and farmers/farmworkers about mental health and COVID-19. Some of the key findings included:

• More than half of rural adults think financial issues (60 percent), fear of losing the farm (54 percent), an uncertain future (51 percent) and the state of the farm economy (50 percent) impact the mental health of farmers a lot.

• The main obstacles to seeking help or treatment for a mental health condition remain cost, availability, accessibility, stigma and embarrassment.

• Two in three farmers/farmworkers say the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their mental health.

• Farmers/farmworkers were 10 percent more likely than rural adults to have experienced feeling nervous, anxious or on edge during the pandemic.

• Farmers/farmworkers were 7 percent more likely than rural adults to say stress and mental health have become more of a problem in their community in the past year. Younger rural adults also are more likely than older rural adults to say stress and mental health have become more of a problem in their community and personally in the past year.

Back in Skagit County, the program seemed to be working, but McMoran and his staff were reading about agricultural suicides in other locations. They decided to try reaching the rest of Washington and Oregon by applying for a $480,000 FRSAN grant, which they got in 2019. That federal money allowed them to create a regional website and print more promotional material. At the same time, the state pilot program was extended into Skamania, Klickitat, Lincoln, Adams and Stevens counties. And McMoran’s team wasn’t done yet. They applied for and received a second round of FRSAN funding in 2020—$7.18 million—to expand the program throughout the western U.S., covering 13 states and four territories.

The second round of FRSAN funding has been used on a new website, farmstress.us, and to hire two Skagit County-based farm aid operators in conjunction with the Farm Aid Hotline (1-800-FARM-AID) to increase the call center’s hours.

“We are really excited about that, because we really liked the model Farm Aid uses,” McMoran said. “It’s a resource line, so any farmer can call the resource line, explain the problem and operators will help put them in touch with the right folks. The operators are also looking for signs of stress and crisis and can intervene when they see those issues and can help folks out.”

While McMoran said he is satisfied his office has achieved their original goals (and then some), there are still things he wants to do. He’d like to take a page out of a Michigan State University program that has ag economists meeting with farmers to go over financial matters and looking for signs of crisis. A second program would involve handing out vouchers for free counseling.

“Scientifically, we know if you give a farmer or farmworker a voucher to send them to counseling, they will use it. Otherwise, there’s that stigma again,” he explained. “The farmer doesn’t want his or her pickup truck seen parked at a local counselor’s office. They aren’t going to pick up the phone to make that happen on their own. But if we give them a voucher, chances are they’ll go, they’ll use it, and they’ll continue to go after the free voucher has been used up.”

The third thing McMoran would like to see is a program where farmers and farmworkers are sent encouraging text messages. A similar program in the 1970s using written letters was shown to be effective in reducing military suicides.

“That research looks really good. We just need a little bit of funding to get it up and running,” he said.

But is a suicide prevention program specifically for farmers and farmworkers necessary? McMoran believes it is vital.

“I don’t think any of my farmers would pick up the phone if they were in crisis and call a general suicide prevention hotline, and if they did, I don’t think the operator on the other end would know how to deal with them and be able to relate,” he explained. “I’m not saying crisis lines aren’t doing an amazing job out there. I just don’t think that they’re connected to this population. That’s why I like the Farm Aid call center, because you have an operator on the other end of the line that understands farming. They know the plight of the American farmer, and they can have those in-the-weeds conversations to be able to relate and get that individual help.”

McMoran will likely never truly know how many people he and his staff have helped, but he’s confident the work has made a difference. He recounted an instance where following one of his Extension presentations, he got a call from a gentleman who had heard it. That gentleman was at a farm in a neighboring county and recognized the signs of someone going through crisis. McMoran said the gentleman was able to use some of the tools and techniques he’d learned to get the farmer help.

“That’s the problem with this work, you never know who you save. You only know who you lose,” he said. “I’m really pleased to be able to do this work. If it saves one life, then it’s worth it, and I believe we have. I just want to continue that. Hopefully, in the meantime, while we are doing this great education outreach, prices will come back, and all of our farmers will get independently wealthy, and we won’t need this program anymore.”

Signs of crisis

While there are many different ways people show stress, McMoran said there are some common warning signs when a person, particularly a farmer or farmworker, is in crisis. Those signs include:

• Changes in routine.

• A decline in the care of farm and livestock.

• A major change in moods, being anxious, agitated or angry.

• New or increased financial pressures.

• A loss of interest in hobbies and activities.

• The farmer or farmworker wanting to give their possessions, especially prized possessions, away. A big red flag is saying things like “I’m not going to be here anymore, so you need to have this.”

If you or somebody you know is exhibiting this behavior, they may be struggling. Noncrisis resource help is available at 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243). Hotline hours are Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. For immediate crisis help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

You can also find information at farmstress.us and extension.wsu.edu/skagit/suicide-prevention/.