Agristress helpline responds to Oregon’s mental health crisis in rural communities

Lauren Anderson, an Oregon State University agriculture student, walks into Strand Agriculture Hall for class on April 18.
Lauren Anderson, an Oregon State University agriculture student, walks into Strand Agriculture Hall for class on April 18.
Kierstin Thompson

The Agristress helpline, a free and confidential helpline for Oregon’s rural communities is approaching its nine month anniversary.

The Agristress helpline is run by an organization called the AgriSafe Network in partnership with telephone provider Via Link and it seeks to offer mental health support to agricultural workers and people in Oregon’s rural communities.

Unlike 988, America’s national suicide prevention lifeline, when people dial Agrisafe’s number they will be answered by crisis specialists that are trained to understand the culture, values and stressors of people in rural communities in order to best coach people in crisis.

“It’s important that when these farmers and ranchers reach out for help that their mental health provider has a form of understanding of what their lifestyle looks like, what barriers they face to getting help, and the appropriate language and verbiage when speaking with them,” said Olivia Bury, a Behavioral Health Specialist at Agrisafe.

“So very often we are thinking about the specific needs of rural and frontier or remote communities which are distinct really from more urban communities in a lot of ways,” said Allison Myers, Associate Dean for Extension and Engagement in the Oregon State University College of Health.

By the helpline’s six-month mark, the service had received calls from 17 of Oregon’s 36 counties (Clackamas, Coos, Curry, Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Jefferson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Union, Wallowa, Wasco, Washington).

Myers explained that there are medical shortages all over Oregon, especially in rural communities and the Agristress helpline gives people in rural Oregon another avenue to get immediate support instead of having to wait for their physician or counselor.

“There are stressors too that the ag and natural resource community faces that are really unique to their industry, having to do with income generation and revenue,” Myers said.

Many people that work in the agriculture industry or live in a rural community are subject to many stressors that people in cities may not experience such as social and geographical isolation, weather variability and fluctuating commodity prices.

America relies heavily on the people that work in agriculture. Mental health struggles can greatly influence individuals’ ability to provide for themselves, their families and other people that rely on them.

The Agristress helpline was founded by rural nurses in Iowa in 2003, and since then, the program has spread to ten other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Massachucetts and Wyoming), but callers from states that are not listed will not be turned away.

The Agristress helpline was sponsored by Oregon Senator Bill Hansell and Oregon Representative Bobby Levy and was included in bill SB 955 which was put into effect July 18, 2023.

This bill gave the program the seed money that it needed to get started in Oregon and it continues to run thanks to sponsors such as the Rural Mental Health Fund at OSU, Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization, AgWest, Roundhouse Foundation and Oregon Farm Bureau.

Myers expressed that the end goal is to make the Agristress helpline accessible in every state and hopefully make it possible for people to navigate to the Agristress helpline from 988.

“Our goal is to improve rural health outcomes by creating trainings and resources that cover the entirety of total farmer health—this means that we are not just focused on physical health, but also social, emotional, and spiritual health,” said Bury.

Administrative Coordinator for the OSU Center of Health Innovation Kaycee Headley emphasized that agriculture workers may not necessarily live where you would expect.

“Cottage Grove is highly dependent on (the) wood products industry, and of course, migrant farm workers a lot of times end up in cities,” Headley said.

If you or anyone else is experiencing a mental health crisis, the Agrisafe number is 833-897-2474.

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