Statewide program helps farmers, ranchers access mental health services

Cows drink from a metal tank that a ranching family created and fills daily to keep the herd watered. Severe drought has made ranching much more complicated for many in the region.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

For farmers and ranchers across the state of Colorado, it can be difficult to access mental health care that caters to their specific concerns and needs. Various agriculture and behavioral health agencies, however, are looking to remedy that with a program that is, “built by agriculture, for agriculture.”

Rebecca Edlund, associate director of technology and membership at Colorado Farm Bureau, said that for those in the agriculture and ranching business, reaching out for help is something that has been avoided for generations.

“Historically, farmers and ranchers are taught to just pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” Edlund said. “You just have to be stronger, you have to be tough. And if you need help, you’re not strong enough, you’re not tough enough.”

A year and a half ago, organizations in the state began planning CAAMHP, or the Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program. Farmers and ranchers face unique challenges within their profession, including severe drought, instability in the commodities market, misinformation targeting consumers and rapidly changing political climates. This summer, ranchers on the Western Slope have faced intense pressures as a result of a regional drought, and some have even made the choice to destock — or sell all of their cattle or livestock — as a result of the increased costs of caring for the animals.

In the program, agriculture and ranch workers can receive vouchers to receive free, private mental health services, funded by grants from the state of Colorado.

“(Mental health) is always something that is felt by farmers and ranchers, but it’s not always something acknowledged in a public forum,” Edlund said. “Farmers and ranchers are statistically more likely to commit suicide than the general population. That said, they are also less likely to talk about that, so a group of farmers and ranchers were together talking about loss, and groups that serve that community more broadly — not just ranchers, but people who were in the industry (as a whole).”

Farmers are among the most likely populations to die by suicide, compared with other occupations, according to a 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says that among the 18 people who died by suicide in Moffat County between 2013 and 2018 (the most recent data), as many as three of them, or about 16%, worked in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting.

Since the program’s launch in May, Edlund said that CAAMHP has had 20 requests for vouchers across the state, and a handful of those 20 have already connected with a counselor and started their mental health sessions.

Creators of the program have partnered with licensed providers who have an understanding of the struggles that people in agriculture face, and participants in CAAMHP are completely anonymous. Edlund said that before mental health workers can see clients, they must complete a course that gives them a solid background of struggles within the agriculture and ranching business in order to best understand what their clients are going through. Training includes crucial knowledge of the business: including cattle genetics, harvesting, crop cycles, farm family dynamics and natural disasters.

“They’re able to understand when a farmer or rancher starts talking about challenges on their operation, or experiences they’ve had,” Edlund said. “Most people who grew up in the city don’t have any concept of how agriculture works, where their food comes from, but what does caring for the animal look like? What does feeding that animal look like? CAAMHP specifically invests time and energy in ensuring that the counselors that work with our program understand and care about agriculture.”

Before the program’s start, organizers spoke directly to agriculture workers about the biggest concerns they had before reaching out for long-term mental health services. Edlund broke down those concerns into three categories: privacy, access and cost.

“The primary (concern) was privacy or anonymity — the ability to access care that doesn’t involve going to a mental health clinic in your town, where everybody knows your vehicle,” she said.

In some rural communities, patients could drive upwards of an hour in order to access services outside of their hometowns, Edlund said, and those sessions can cost well over $100 per hour out of pocket without insurance. Other states have already begun similar programs; Wisconsin has the Farmer Wellness Program that provides vouchers for agriculture workers, and Montana has one, as well.

The program applies to farmers, ranchers, their families, as well as agribusiness workers and those who work in related fields. Those interested in receiving vouchers can visit Clients should hear back from a counselor within 24 hours to help schedule and establish contact preferences, and first appointments are usually scheduled within a week.

“People are dying because they feel like there’s no help,” Edlund said. “They feel like there’s no way out, and we want folks to know that there is a way out.”

The Longevity Project to dig deeper on mental health

The Craig Press is holding an event titled The Longevity Project in which a panel and keynote speaker will address local and national mental health issues. The event is $10 to enter, Wednesday, September 22, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Come learn more with us about this critical issue.

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