In farming and ranching communities throughout the state, the unexpected loss of a respected colleague or loved one is a hard blow to those who knew them. This holds true when the death was intentional. Sometimes, but not always, it becomes clear that the person had been traveling a long and difficult road–one paved with familiar stressors such as poor health, poor harvests, or poor market conditions.
While statistics about farmer suicide can be difficult to pinpoint with accuracy, the fact remains that many among us know or have heard about someone dying by suicide. Global and national efforts to prevent farmer suicide and the difficulties preceding it are widespread at this point, but what options are there in Oregon?
It’s a question that Cassie Bouska and Julie Leep with OSU-Extension in Coos County hope to answer with the formation of Oregon’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.
Recently hired to assist with the program, Leep acknowledges that strengthening communities to deal with stress and suicide can be tough new territory. ‘“Coming into it, I never knew this was an issue,” says Leep. “Starting this job, the reality of it is mind-boggling and it’s heartbreaking. We just need to have those conversations and reach out to our friends and our neighbors and take care of each other. We don’t always do a good job of that.”
In October 2020, Leep reached out to Oregon Aglink about partnering with the new program and promoting it to Aglink members. While FRSAN is technically a national program funded through a grant from the USDA and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the regional networks receive and then disburse funds to even smaller networks designed to raise awareness, respond to local needs, and highlight available resources.
Finding partner organizations to boost the message has been tough during COVID. Many offices have been operating on limited hours or with staff at home. Conventions and industry meetings have also been held virtually or even cancelled, like the 2021 event for Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, where Bouska and Leep would have had a booth with OSU Extension.
Face-to-face conversations can make all the difference in convincing agricultural professionals that there is a need to address stress and mental health at a community level.
“We have to sell this program to people,” says Bouska. “Sometimes seeing a poster or an ad can make it look like just another class or whatever. Having that personal connection especially for a sensitive topic is what makes this work.”
Future strategy sessions and needs assessments will look at long-term plans for FRSAN in Oregon, but for now the strategy is to build awareness and get people to the resources that will start making an immediate difference. As of spring 2021, the website includes video resources, links to research and strategies on dealing with stress, and a list of upcoming QPR training sessions.
QPR stands for “Question, Persuade, Refer,” an intervention tool for community members to recognize signs of suicidal thoughts in their peers and begin the process of getting someone to the help they need. The process has three clear steps: question the person gently but directly about their desire or intent to commit suicide, persuade them to seek or accept help, and then refer them to appropriate resources.
There are QPR trainings tailored to many different settings and audiences such as school health professionals, veterans service providers, and emergency service workers. The training offers guidance on how to approach these difficult conversations, often with suggested questions or examples to better prepare community members. In the agricultural community, that can include some strategic phrasing to help navigate around stigmas regarding mental health, emotions, or asking for help.
A primary goal of QPR is to reduce the chances someone will attempt suicide. A secondary benefit of having people in every rural or agricultural community trained in QPR methods means that the conversations can also start taking place before the crisis.
“The whole goal is to get an awareness out there that there ARE resources and that what you’re maybe feeling is one, a real thing, and two, a pretty normal thing,” says Bouska. “You can get help early before it develops into something terrible. There’s help for you. It’s not a bad thing to get help.”
The “refer” portion of QPR has raised some questions about which resources are accessible in rural spaces. Getting to a doctor or a specialist can be challenging in the more remote areas, and sometimes finding support for mental or emotional needs is a tall order. “Thinking about long term, if someone’s in crisis, we’ve got the hospitals and people pretty well situated around our two counties,” says Leep about the Coos and Curry area. “For a longer-term plan of getting people on their feet and in their best state of mind, finding a therapist is really challenging. There are not a lot of options.”
There is hope that increased awareness will also raise the likelihood of calls to prioritize this aspect of public health.
From telehealth options to funding programs that bring certified professionals into rural areas, finding avenues to get help is as important as identifying that need in the first place.
In the meantime, making those conversations easier is a strong beginning. In recalling how her presentations about mental health and suicide can go with meetings of local cranberry growers, Bouska recalls the initial sense of discomfort in the room. “You’re mostly just met with silence,” she says. “It’s a big group of people, mostly men, some women.”
Bouska knows that breakthroughs can take time. It might take a week before someone calls back to say they appreciated the presentation because they have personally struggled with thoughts of suicide and received help from their peers. Even if people don’t know how to respond right away, many members of the ag community are seeing the importance of being more open about tough subjects.
“You know,” she says, “they hear you when you say things.”
Just like planting any other seed, you have to trust that an idea is germinating. With FRSAN and the increasing awareness of stress and mental wellness in the Oregon agricultural community, the conditions might just be ideal.
by Allison Cloo