As farmers experience the highest suicide rates nationwide of any occupation, a Kentucky coalition puts them in the forefront, promoting their physical and mental health, and safety. Raising Hope is a grant-funded initiative — a partnership between the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and five other entities. And those who work with the farmers talk about what they’ve seen, and why there’s a need.
“When people call 988, they are now asked if they’re a farmer, or a member of the farming community …” Dr. Cheryl Witt said about the national suicide and crisis hotline.
And if they are a farmer, they are transferred to the Pennyroyal Center in Kentucky, where operators are trained how to specifically help them.
Witt said that due to the last round of appropriations from the General Assembly to Raising Hope, they were able to update the equipment and hire more staff at the center. They also developed a cultural awareness guide to assist others in talking to farmers in crisis.
Unfortunately, it’s all a necessity. According to the National Rural Health Association, farmer suicide rates are three and a half times higher than that of the general population in the U.S., and this crisis extends globally, too.
Witt is one of the founders of the coalition. She’s a researcher with years of experience — an RN and nursing professor who did her PhD dissertation on depression rates of female farmers.
And as a sixth-generation farmer herself, Witt already knew what a huge leap it would be to tackle any kind of farmer health issues. It’s just their stoic nature, she said, and how they were raised to deal with things on the farm.
She and Dale Dobson, safety administrator with KDA, work under the health and safety umbrella of the coalition. Witt began partnering with Dobson at different events, like farm machinery shows, bringing her health team to do free screenings.
“It finally hit Dale — he was hedgy at first, when we wanted to do the health screening,” she said. They’d never done them before and no one wanted to scare farmers off from safety events, but she knew the team could either help postpone or prevent chronic disease or disability by doing simple scans.
“But he’s recognized the importance,” Witt said about Dobson, who constantly sings Witt’s praises. Dobson said that due to her team’s ultrasounds on carotid arteries, he’s known of situations where farmers found out at an event about a major blockage that could’ve led to a stroke.
“Because of Dr. Witt and her team, they lived to come back and tell us about it,” Dobson said. So now, he wants her team to come along whenever he can get them.
“Dale and I feel this is such an important mission,” Witt said. “We’ve seen and felt the success of it. It does make a difference.”
She said having nursing students involved in talking to farmers and performing screenings makes a difference, too.
“If you work in Kentucky, you’re going to take care of a farmer at some poin,” Witt said, and it’s crucial that they are able to communicate with them in order to correctly treat them.
For instance, she said, “Farmers’ scale of pain can be very different from most other people’s” due to that stoic nature. They deal with a lot of stressful situations, large animals and large machinery — they don’t shake easily, and research shows they have higher pain thresholds than non-farmers.
“And they’re always so busy taking care of everything and everyone else on the farm, they usually put off going to the doctor for themselves. So, we said, let’s bring what we can to them.”
Boots on the ground makes difference
In the academic world, Witt said, “you need science to back things up.” Before the coalition was formed, she looked at what’s out there. As far as any type of intervention that was made accessible to farming communities and proven to affect mental health, there just weren’t any.
“A lot of the suicide prevention programs have been designed with urban folks, it’s just a different culture.” And she was impressed with Dobson’s challenge coin, created with farmers in mind. He and others give the coins out with a handshake, asking recipients to pledge they will reach out and talk if they need to, while they give their own pledge to be there to listen if they do.
“I wanted to know about the coin — was it effective, and is it farmer-centered.” She and her team went back to everyone they could find who received a coin and interviewed them.
“What we found was that it didn’t matter if you got your coin yesterday or five years ago — your feeling of caring, feeling cared for and supported was the same.”
Witt said it’s sustainable, and the interaction made farmers receptive. “What it tells us is that the more direct, interpersonal interventions are more effective with them. And we’ve found out that the more we’re out there, boots on the ground, the more they know we care. That can make a big difference.”
Jeanne Ward got involved with Raising Hope because she knew of the rural health disparities, especially in her PhD program for nursing.
“Rural populations have worse access to healthcare, to screenings, which means a lot poorer outcomes … and mental health is one of the areas neglected.”
She points out that Raising Hope is not an advocacy group supporting any political causes.
“We’re a coalition — one of our goals is to show appreciation, and farmers also want the public to know what they go through, so awareness is a big part.” They try to reach farmers and the general public through events, digital campaigns, and advertising. It’s also important to the coalition to help educate the general public on what farmers go through in order to produce the food we need.
There are a lot of moving parts and pieces to a coalition, Ward said. There are several partner entities, and each one — either academic or governmental — were able to apply for grant funding appropriations to do different projects related to Raising Hope’s goals.
Buying into farmers’ health
The last round of funds from the state legislature were announced in August, and totaled $450,000 to be used for promoting the mental well-being of Kentucky farmers.
In addition to the Pennyroyal Center funding to improve the crisis line, other Raising Hope initiatives that were allocated funds include the University of Kentucky, to expand Mental Health First Aid training to ag-centric populations; Vimarc, a marketing agency to create a campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in rural areas; Western Kentucky University for health screening and education events; and the U.K.’s Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention, for a youth rural resilience program promoting health and safety at farms.
The coalition is also partnered with the Kentucky Department of Public Health and the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities.
Dobson, Witt and Ward said they were thrilled with the continued funding, making it apparent that the mental and physical health of the state’s farmers is important.
“Raising Hope brings awareness and resources to treat the whole of a person,” Commissioner Quarles said. “As we know, when we deal with mental and physical health situations, we may not have the resources or confidence to address a crisis. Raising Hope offers health solutions and a network of individuals who can relate to mental and physical struggles and help to overcome these moments.”
Witt said working with Dobson under the safety umbrella only makes sense to her. There’s a synergistic effect between safety and stress, she pointed out.
“If you’re fatigued, you put yourself at a higher risk for getting hurt. And getting hurt then affects your mental health and could develop into a permanent disability, creating more stress.”
Witt said knowing that Raising Hope aims to help the whole farmer makes it even more worthwhile. “We want the farmers to feel that we feel their health is important, so they can remain healthy and keep doing what they love for as long as possible.”
Raising Hope offers several different resources for farmers, which can be found at raisinghopeky.com. For anyone struggling who needs confidential help now, call or text 988.
By Bobbie Curd