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

Texa farmers.JPG
Mark Rogers
/
The Texas Tribune
Grant Heinrich, location manager for Pro-Agri Spraying, outside his office in Slaton on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2022.

The department’s helpline is less than a year old. But advocates hope state lawmakers fully fund it as farmers and ranchers continue to face hard economic times and isolation.

SLATON — Grant Heinrich was working in the office on his family’s farm when he got a text message from one of his closest friends and farm hands.

A suicide note.

Heinrich jumped in his truck and sped to the barn. The West Texas roads seemed like a tunnel with blurred walls of crops curving around him.

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

Suicide felt like a plague on Heinrich’s family. He lost his uncle 24 years ago. Then one of his cousins, who Heinrich saw as a superhero, died nine years ago. Two years after that, another cousin died by suicide.

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

During the last two decades, there have been higher rates of suicide in rural communities than in urban areas. And it’s getting worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased 46% in rural America, compared to a 27.3% increase in metro areas. And rural residents go to the emergency room 1.5 times more to be treated for self-harm incidents.

For farmers, the rate is higher – 3.5 times more than the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association.

Advocates suggest because farmers face multiple economic challenges that are out of their hands and are reluctant to share their problems, they are less likely to seek help. When they do, there can be very few options in reach because affordable care is limited in rural communities.

As a way to close the gaps in access, the Texas Department of Agriculture is asking the Texas Legislature to sustain the Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program for $500,000 a year. The money would help pay for a toll-free helpline for all workers in the agricultural industry, their families and people in their communities. The program launched last February with a federal grant and offers mental and financial resources to callers.

“Some people are just wanting to talk, and maybe they’re not in an emotional crisis,” said Trish Rivera, the department’s 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.”

“The middle of nowhere”

When Heinrich thinks of his three dead family members, he inevitably wonders if he could have changed things. It’s a thought that haunts many people who lose loved ones to suicide: Is there a magical, golden hour to convince someone to stay alive?

That question, along with his grief, burrowed into Heinrich’s mind for years. It was on his mind again as he raced toward the barn in hopes of stopping his friend.

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

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

“I was just so thankful he was alive.”

Heinrich is the location manager for Pro-Agri Spraying in Slaton, a town of about 6,000 people 17 miles southeast of Lubbock. He also has become an advocate for mental health wellness and has helped promote the AgriStress helpline to reach the state's rural community. Heinrich’s seeding and spraying business, like the rest of the industry, felt the financial pressure of last year’s bad agricultural season. The historic drought devastated crops all over the state and left farmers to watch as the dry soil on their land blew away.

Part of the problem, Heinrich said, is the sheer isolation that can come with living on a farm.

“You’re so far removed 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 out in the middle of nowhere, and half the time they’ve already made their decision.”

Grant Heinrich.JPG
Mark Rogers
/
The Texas Tribune
First: Grant Heinrich in a field near his Slaton business in November. Last: Heinrich in his Slaton office. “It’s not a weakness to go see a professional, someone who’s not your spouse or best friend,” Heinrich said.

The Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program was created in 2021 after state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat, added language to the agriculture department’s so-called “sunset bill,” legislation that authorizes the department to exist and lays out the work it is supposed to do. He plans to support the department’s funding request this year, he said.

“Rural areas just don’t have mental health services,” Gutierrez told The Texas Tribune. “When you look at who lives there, you have people who are farmers or working on farms, and they’re a crop failure away from family devastation.”

It was originally unfunded, but the department won a one-time grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The state agriculture department partnered with the AgriSafe Network, a nonprofit organization that has helped start similar programs in Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming. Rivera said the goal is to both provide care and resources to those in need and to destigmatize conversations on mental health in an industry that typically doesn’t talk about it.

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

The department promotes the program where farmers might see it, such as at stock shows and county extension agencies and in local newspapers, schools and agriculture organizations. This will amplify with more funding, which the department is confident will come in the legislative session.

“We’ll have a continued effort to keep that message in front of our producers and really work to change the culture,” Rivera said.

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

“It’s important for whoever is answering to be informed and have the cultural competency to be able to talk about what they’re experiencing,” Rivera said. “It’s a good resource for anybody in rural life.”

Since the helpline’s launch in February, Rivera estimates it has received at least 60 calls. In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde last May, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller opened the helpline to everyone in the community.

Heinrich thinks the program could help farmers be less afraid of seeking help.

“It’s not a weakness to go see a professional, someone who’s 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 who are hurting.’”