Slaton-Grant Heinrich was working in his family’s farm office when he received a message from a close friend and laborer.
A suicide note.
Heinrich jumped into his truck and drove to the barn. West Texas’s highway looked like a tunnel, with blurred walls of crops winding around it.
Heinrich said, “The only thing on my mind was to hurry up and get there.” “I blew a hose in my truck, but I knew if I was late, I would be punished for it for the rest of my life.”
The suicide felt like a plague on Heinrich’s family. He had lost his uncle 24 years back. Then a cousin of his, whom Heinrich looked up to as a superhero, died nine years earlier. Two years after that, another cousin committed suicide.
“I’ve seen so much pain in my entire family,” he said.
Over the past two decades, suicide rates have been higher in rural communities than in urban areas. And it’s getting worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in rural America has increased by 46%, compared to a 27.3% increase in metropolitan areas.
And rural residents are 1.5 times more likely to visit the emergency room for treatment of suicidal incidents.
For farmers, the rate is higher: 3.5 times that of the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association.
Advocates suggest that because farmers face many economic challenges that are out of their hands and are reluctant to share their problems, they are less likely to seek help. When they do, there may be few options available to them because affordable care is limited in rural communities.
As a way to close the access gap, the Texas Department of Agriculture is asking the Texas Legislature to sustain the Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program for $500,000 a year. The money will help pay for a toll-free helpline for all workers in the agriculture industry, their families and people in their communities. The program was launched last February with a federal grant and provides mental and financial resources to callers.
“Some people just want to talk and may not be in emotional distress,” said Trish Rivera, a rural health specialist with the department that oversees the program. “But they need someone to talk to about what they’re going through so they don’t get to that stage.”
In the middle of nowhere
When Heinrich thinks about his three dead family members, he inevitably wonders if he could have made a difference. It’s a thought that haunts many people who lose loved ones to suicide: Is there a magical, golden time to persuade someone to continue living?
That question, along with its pain, lingered in Heinrich’s mind for years. It flashed through his mind again as he ran toward the barn hoping to stop his friend.
“I was horrified by what I was going to find,” he said.
He found his friend, gun in hand, and was able to calm him down. “I felt so grateful that he was alive.”
Henrik is the location manager for Pro-Agri Spraying in Slaton, a town of about 6,000 people 17 miles southeast of Lubbock. He has also become an advocate for mental health wellness and has helped promote the Agristress helpline to reach out to the rural community in the state.
Heinrich’s planting and spraying business, like the rest of the industry, felt the financial pressure of the previous year’s poor farming season.
The historic drought devastated crops across the state and left farmers watching dry soil blow away from their fields.
Part of the problem, Heinrich said, is the sheer isolation that can come from living on a farm.
“You are far away from other people,” said Heinrich. “It’s not like you’re walking down the street and someone stops you to say hello. These people are in the middle of nowhere, and half the time they’ve already made up their mind.”
The mental health and suicide prevention program for farmers was created in 2021, when San Antonio Democrat state Sen. Roland G. Establishes the work it should do.
He plans to support the department’s funding request this year, he said.
“There are no mental health services in rural areas,” Gutierrez told the Texas Tribune. “When you look at who lives there, you have people who are farmers or work on farms, and a crop failure can bring devastation to a family.”
Originally unfunded, the department won a one-time grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The State Department of Agriculture has partnered with the AgriSafe Network, a nonprofit organization that has helped launch similar programs in Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming. Rivera said the goal is to bring care and resources to those who need it and to destigmatize the conversation about mental health in an industry that doesn’t typically talk about it.
“Farming is a culture where you don’t really talk about your feelings, and we want to change that,” Rivera said. “We want people to feel comfortable asking for help.”
The department promotes the program where farmers can see it, such as at livestock shows and county extension agencies, and in local newspapers, schools and agricultural organizations. It will be augmented by more funding, which the department is confident will come in the legislative session.
“We will make a continual effort to put that message in front of our producers, and we will really work to change the culture,” Rivera said.
What makes the helpline special is who is on the other end of the call: the program has around 250 mental health professionals trained to understand the various stresses farmers and herders face. This includes weather, crop prices, tariffs and other issues.
“It is important that whoever is responding is informed and has the cultural competence to be able to talk about what they are experiencing,” Rivera said. “It’s a great resource for anyone in rural life.”
Since the helpline launched in February, Rivera estimates he has received at least 60 calls. After the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last May, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller opened the helpline to everyone in the community.
Heinrich believes the program can help farmers who are too afraid to seek help.
“It’s not a weakness to visit someone other than a professional, your spouse, or your best friend,” Henrik said. “It’s important to just let someone know, ‘Hey, you’re not alone, there are a lot of people who are suffering.'”