Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Farmers often struggle with mental health. Officials hope a new helpline will change that

Republican Pennsylvania state Sen. Elder Vogel represents all or part of Beaver, Butler, and Lawrence counties. The farmer was first elected to the Senate in 2008.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Republican Pennsylvania state Sen. Elder Vogel, a fourth-generation farmer in New Sewickley Township, has championed the cause of mental health care for agricultural workers.

People who work in Pennsylvania’s agricultural sector, or know someone who does, now have a new place to call if they face a mental health crisis. The state’s Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it had launched a helpline for agricultural workers.

The telephone service is a key resource in an industry where work conditions are often grueling and suicide is especially common, officials said.

“Farming is never an easy occupation physically or mentally, and it’s compounded by so many factors completely out of one's control: You have the weather, market fluctuations, government regulations, animal health, the fear of losing the family farm and most recently, a pandemic,” Republican state Sen. Elder Vogel said during a virtual briefing with reporters Friday.

The state’s new helpline operates 24/7, and services are available free of charge in 160 languages, according to Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, Russell Redding. The number is 833-897-AGRI (2474).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will fund the program with a $500,000 grant.

Vogel, chair of the state Senate’s agriculture and rural affairs committee and a farmer himself, noted that research suggests farmers have become more comfortable during the pandemic with discussing mental health challenges. Still, he said the stigma surrounding the topic remains “a significant hurdle.”

Natalie Roy, executive director of the national nonprofit AgriSafe, noted that the helpline provides an extra degree of privacy. Her organization administers the service.

“It's difficult for farmers sometimes to drive up to a place where there might be a counselor because everybody can recognize that truck sitting outside the counselor's office,” she said.

Agricultural workers who call the helpline receive immediate assistance in coping with crises, Roy said. They can also discuss options for longer-term support such as talk therapy.

In agricultural communities, the telephone service could play a crucial role in expanding access to counseling, Roy said.

“Even if a farmer or rancher attempts to seek mental health care, they generally reside in a rural area. And that rural area is often designated as an underserved mental health professional shortage area,” she said.

Redding noted, too, that the helpline does not require broadband service, which tends to be spotty in rural communities.

The USDA grant will also support efforts to expand mental health resources at the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence, Center for Beef Excellence, Center for Poultry and Livestock Excellence, and National Young Farmers Coalition chapters.

In addition, the grant will fund training for helpline counselors.

“What we’re excited about is [that] the staff that are going to be answering that line understand agriculture,” Roy, of AgriSafe, said. “They’re not going to tell a dairy farmer to take a two-week vacation.”

AgriSafe began to run its helpline in Texas and Wyoming a week ago, and it will soon go live in Virginia, too, Roy said.

Redding said the helpline is available to anyone who works in the state’s food and agricultural system or is connected to it through a family member or other relation. He noted that the sector covers industries ranging from forestry to landscaping and food processing.

“We're using the broadest definition of agriculture,” he said. “And anybody connected to that is welcome to [and] encouraged to use the services through this helpline.”