State launches mental health helpline for Missouri farmers

Soybeans are harvested in southern Callaway County. (News Tribune file photo)
Soybeans are harvested in southern Callaway County. (News Tribune file photo)

Missouri has a new mental health helpline for one of its most distressed populations: farmers and ranchers.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture on Monday launched the AgriStress Helpline, a free, confidential mental health service that connects agricultural producers and rural families with mental health care professionals that have an agricultural background. The number to call or text is 833-897-2474.

The line is open and staffed 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

There's a mental health crisis in rural Missouri, a collaborative report from 2020 found.

"Growing stress on the farm: The expanding economic and mental health disparities in rural Missouri" was produced by the Missouri Hospital Association, Missouri Department of Mental Health, Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare, Missouri Farm Bureau and the University of Missouri Extension and published in 2020. It provided the state a comprehensive look at growing mental health concerns among Missouri's agricultural producers.

The issue is two-fold, according to the report. Farmers shoulder stress and insecurity inherent in agricultural production, which is compounded by a lack of access to behavioral health care.

Extreme weather events, economic pressures and foreign trade policies have combined to produce a series of lean years producers haven't experienced since the 1980s, which has contributed to significantly higher rates of depression and suicide among rural producers as compared to urban residents.

"Having a career in agriculture is not for the faint of heart. Unpredictable weather, market volatility, cost fluctuation, government regulations and long hours can put pressure on our producers and their families," MDA Director Chris Chinn said in a news release Monday. "We know producers take pride in their ability to handle challenging circumstances, which can lead to a stigma around seeking mental health support. But, it's okay to need help. Our goal is to ensure free, confidential support is available for Missouri farmers, ranchers and rural community members through the AgriStress Helpline."

The rate of suicide in rural Missouri counties is growing 50 percent faster than the rate in urban counties, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2020 data.

Approximately 3,780 rural Missourians died by suicide from 2003-17. The rate of deaths per 100,000 rural residents was 12 in 2003, but climbed to 21.3 per 100,000 by 2017. That's a 78 percent increase in 14 years, whereas the urban rate increased 52 percent during the same time period.

Rural men had the highest suicide rate in Missouri at slightly more than 35 deaths per 100,000 residents. The rate for rural men was double the rate for men statewide and five times the rate for rural women. There were 329 suicide deaths in rural Missouri in 2017 and 84 percent of them were men.

The issue is compounded by a lack of mental health resources in rural parts of the state.

Missouri has 3.7 percent of the recommended supply of mental health professionals necessary to serve its population, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration's 2020 data.

All 99 of Missouri's rural counties face a shortage of mental health professionals, including 57 counties that don't have a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist at all, according to the HRSA.

Even with resources in place, a prevailing stigma around seeking help for mental health issues likely prevents many from trying, the "Growing stress on the farm" report found.

"In the farming and ranching community, we're raised to be tough. We're raised to put our heads down and stay to work and keep working," said Christi Miller, a spokesperson for MDA. "But it's okay to ask for help. And that's what we want to encourage people. There's nothing wrong with asking for assistance."

Miller said the department is promoting the AgriStress Helpline through a dedicated website, partnerships with other state agencies, social media, media pushes and public outreach at the state fair this week.

Missouri launched another helpline program in July.

The 988 suicide and mental health crisis lifeline connects directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to provide callers free, confidential care around the clock.

Although 988 is a national initiative, calls placed in the state are directed to one of Missouri's seven crisis centers, where specialists are trained to listen, provide support and connect the caller to resources. They can also dispatch mobile crisis response teams. Approximately 253,000 contacts are projected for the program's first year.

Miller said the 988 number and the AgriStress Helpline are beneficial resources helping to reach more Missourians struggling with mental health, but the AgriStress Helpline is geared specifically to farmers and ranchers as the health professionals on the other end are familiar with the daily challenges producers face.

"They understand agriculture. They understand Missouri agriculture," she said. "So that's the difference. The other option is a wonderful option, and we love that anyone can get help at any time."

The helpline is part of the AgriSafe Network, a nonprofit made up of health professionals and educators rallied around a goal of reducing health disparities found in rural communities.

Missouri received a federal grant to offer the helpline as a way to combat farmer stress and suicide. The grant funds will also be used to distribute mental health resources and offer training through MU Extension.

Miller said farming and ranching is a continuously challenging industry.

This year alone the agricultural industry, the largest industry in Missouri, saw increased farm input and fuel costs, as well as drought and flooding in different parts of the state.

"It just seems like it's one thing after another for the agriculture community," Miller said. "So we just are trying to talk with folks about the fact that it's okay to ask for help, there's nothing wrong with it. It's just for years that producers weren't as comfortable making phone calls and weren't as comfortable reaching out, but I think that tide is certainly changing."

Miller said if the helpline assists even just one person, it has reached its goal. But ultimately, the department wants to help as many people as it can.

"The suicide numbers in the farming community nationwide are high," she said. "They're too high. One is too many."

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