Maggie Hanna grew up a typical rural kid: in school on weekdays; helping with the cattle on her family’s ranch southeast of Colorado Springs on weekends. Except Hanna had something else to contend with. When she was 9, her father, Kirk Hanna, died by suicide.
Now, she’s working to bring more mental health resources to rural Colorado, helping to strengthen communities, like the one that sheltered her family during crisis.
“That community scooped us up and took care of us, and still takes care of us,” Hanna said. “They herd cattle with us in the spring, they let us know whatever we’re missing. Our school bus driver protected us. People just came together around this little family and said ‘We can’t let this fall apart.’”
Agricultural communities around Colorado face a unique set of mental health challenges not found in other parts of the state, where values of self-reliance and perseverance can collide with an economic reality that won’t bend. In 2016, net farm income fell to the lowest it’s been since 2001. Farming and ranching can be a desperate business. When income drops, suicide rates go up. Looking forward to a tumultuous future of tariffs and a less predictable environment, some farmers and ranchers think it’s time to learn to talk about the hard stuff.
Hanna, now 30, followed in the footsteps of her father, a larger-than-life leader of the environmental ranching movement, working with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to preserve ranch and farm land. She is also working with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help tailor mental health resources for the areas of Colorado that have historically lacked them. A little farm knowledge helps. Bringing a background in agriculture to the problem of mental health, the advisory group has worked in partnership with Colorado Crisis Services to anticipate where a struggling farmer or rancher would go. They’ve posted hotline numbers at sale barns and banks, and worked to train hotline operators on how to talk to people who live their work.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner, said she is working to expand the new mental health outreach work that got started under her predecessor, Don Brown, who saw hard financial times around the corner.
“A lot of the economic factors were looking a lot like the eighties farm crisis,” Greenberg said. “Foreclosure rates were skyrocketing and in parallel, so were farmer suicide rates. A few years ago, we were seeing — and are still seeing — a lot of similar factors.”
In Colorado, the rate of suicide per 100,000 people was 22.1 in urban areas and 27.7 in rural areas in 2018, according to data collected by the Colorado Health Institute. Statewide, there were 1,259 deaths by suicide last year, up from 1,175 in 2017 and 1,156 in 2016. Suicide is most common among people between the ages of 45 and 64, and men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives.
Flagging farm income signals trouble
For Greenberg, the red flag has been a drastic drop in net farm income, dragged down 50% since 2013 by a combination of low commodity prices and escalating foreign tariffs.
Commodity prices aren’t the only thing a farmer can’t control. Land prices are going up, which makes it harder for young farmers to own property, and the changing climate is leading to longer periods of drought and worsening floods. A crop can be ruined by rain that continues too long into the summer or unseasonable hail.
“I mean, you go from 2018 when folks were culling their herds because there wasn’t enough water to this year, and we’re preparing for floods and we’ve had bomb cyclones,” Greenberg said.
Hanna said all the unknowns pile on to a huge expectation. Farmers are responsible for feeding the world, but their financial well-being often depends on factors they cannot control.
“It can be incredibly financially overwhelming when you have taken out a loan to try and bridge the gap in tough times, and the tough times don’t go away, and now you’re over-leveraged and there’s nothing really you can do about it,” Greenberg said. “Every season’s a gamble. Pair all that together with the sense of responsibility and stewardship of all of this life and legacy. And, you know, there might be a straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Hanna thinks that beyond the financial realities of agriculture, rural Western communities need to learn how to talk about mental health. In areas where people take pride in their resilience, it will take a cultural shift to learn how to reach out for help.
For people who work in cities, crisis lines often advise taking some time off, or stepping back and having dinner with family. Life doesn’t work that way for people in agriculture. In calving season, cows give birth any time of day or night. If an irrigation system breaks on the farm, it can’t be left unrepaired.
When the day-to-day struggles become more than someone feels they can handle, getting them help fast is important. In rural areas, those resources are often far away, said Nancy King, a licensed professional counselor and development director of Southeast Health Group, which provides mental health services in six counties in the southeast corner of Colorado.
Suicide rates in that corner of the state doubled to 21.4 from 2016 to 2017 and jumped again last year to 25.9, according to the Colorado Health Institute, which cautioned that because the region includes only about 68,500 people, even one additional death can cause a statistical spike.
“There’s a lot of geographic isolation out here. If you live in Springfield, Colorado, you’re four hours from Denver, you’re two and a half hours from Pueblo, from a major hospital,” King said. “It creates a kind of isolation that we used to solve through community involvement, in church involvement and all those things. And some of that is slipping away, so people feel more isolated and more apart from one another.”
When people are in crisis, Hanna said, they need resources right away. Even living in Denver, she said she has trouble getting an appointment with a therapist.
“Being involved with this issue, I thought I should be proactive and talk to a therapist. I’ve made six phone calls and I still haven’t been able to get in anywhere,” Hanna said. “And I’m fully functional. I can be in Denver, I can be in any appointment. How are these poor guys supposed to figure this out?”
Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.
For Greenberg, the first step is making sure people know what resources are there. They hung banners at sale barns, where a struggling rancher might go to sell their herd, and leave business cards with the hotline number on the counter at the bank.
“We’re also thinking about how to put these resources in the way of folks who might not be explicit about their need for help, but might be at the bank and be talking to their banker about what they’re going through and see a business card on the table that they can easily grab,” Greenberg said. “Nobody has to know. They can put it in their back pocket and when they’ve got a few minutes to themselves, they can pick up the phone and call or text and say, ‘Hey, I am struggling.’ I don’t want my family to know, but I don’t know what to do.’”
Good at providing help, not so good at asking for help
Hanna said it’s equally important that the person picking up that call knows how to talk about the difficulties of life in agriculture. The agriculture department worked with Hanna and her mom, Ann, and other producers to create training videos for the crisis-call takers, helping to inform the way the way they communicate with farmers and ranchers.
Since the agriculture department started the program, the crisis hotline is seeing more traffic from rural parts of the state, with a 15% increase in the number of calls and texts in the past year and a half. Greenberg said she hopes this is due to better outreach, not more struggling people.
As just one state, Greenberg said a lot of what’s inducing stress in agricultural communities is out of the department’s control. Without the power to change federal policy, they are left trying to put Band-Aids on bigger wounds, making sure people have access to mental health care even if they cannot change what’s causing the poor mental health in the first place. King said she thinks a big part of the solution is normalizing the discussion, making it easier for people to admit they’re struggling and then connecting them with resources.
“We used to whisper about cancer and we don’t anymore, and we’re whispering about suicide and we just can’t afford to whisper about it anymore,” King said. “We really need to be able to talk to the people that we love, the people that we work with, people that we meet about their loneliness and their grief and their desperation so that we can get them to places where they can get help.”
For Hanna, a big part of the process is destigmatizing the conversation. She said she thinks those same people who so selflessly gave their time and knowledge after her father died in 1998 might not be able to ask for the same kind of support.
“I think rural places are very good at giving help and very bad at asking for help,” Hanna said. “I don’t know the answer, but I can say it out loud until it stops being weird.”