WSU Extension resources support ag workers’ mental health

Jon Paul Driver presenting during a farmers workshop. He stands in the middle of the living room. Six people sit on couches listening.
Jon Paul Driver, WSU Extension specialist with the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, presenting during a farmers workshop.

In Washington state, agricultural worker suicide rates are significantly higher than the national average. To address this concerning trend, Washington State University Extension is supporting the mental health of thousands of agricultural workers statewide through services, programming, and one-on-one financial counseling.

Ag sector anxieties often stem from rising prices, fluctuating markets, extreme weather events, and a nonstop farming schedule. Financial hardship causes the most stress for Washington farmers.

“Whether you own a couple of sheep or are farming more than 1,000 acres, the reality is that every farmer has financial struggles,” said Jon Paul Driver, a WSU Extension specialist with the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, whose work is grant-funded through the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Driver, who grew up farming — first dairy cows and now timothy and alfalfa hay — said he understands the challenges. His WSU degrees in agribusiness and economics and his industry experience working with Farm Credit Services and the Western Center for Risk Management have enabled him to effectively help farmers address financial stress head on.

Just this year, Driver has given dozens of presentations during industry events in production systems as varied as tree fruit, cattle, and wheat. More than 1,500 farmers have attended his presentations on topics including high interest rates, inflation, acquiring bank loans, creating enterprise budgets, and macroeconomic updates.

“The most important part of my presentation is letting farmers know that I’m available to help further,” he said.

Driver calculates that of every 100 people he presents to, about four will reach out for follow-up assistance. He has met with more than 150 farmers via one-on-one consultations so far this year.

“Extension is a recognized, high-quality brand in agriculture that allows me to be effective at these different levels,” he said. “When someone is overwhelmed with stress or anxiety that extends beyond finances, I’m able to refer them to other Extension programs or personnel. That’s part of Extension’s broad safety net approach.”

Interconnected, statewide mental health support

Emily Whittier headshot.
Emily Whittier, one of four farm stress coordinator with WSU Extension.

“Farmers across the country are on the front lines of our food systems,” said Emily Whittier, a farm stress coordinator with WSU Extension. “But that means they are also on the front lines of volatile markets.”

Whittier is one of four recently hired WSU Farm Stress and Suicide Prevention Program coordinators who provide resources throughout Washington state. Since 2022, the coordinators have helped agriculture and forestry workers access tools that support mental health and well-being.

Alyssa Wade, another WSU farm stress coordinator, sees more farmers openly discuss farming stressors and how to maintain and improve mental and physical health.

“Reducing the stigma around talking about stress and identifying the unique risk factors in the agricultural community is an important step toward accessing the right treatment and learning healthy coping skills that can improve lives,” Wade said.

Close-up of Alyssa Wade, farm stress coordinator with WSU Extension.
Alyssa Wade, farm stress coordinator with WSU Extension.

The four farm stress and suicide prevention program coordinators were hired with grant funding from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran, who applied for DOH funding, has been integral in establishing the 988 suicide prevention hotline for ag producers.

This year, he worked with the WSU Psychology Clinic to offer ag producers six free counseling sessions.

“Research shows rates of suicide go down exponentially after counseling,” he said. “People who meet with a certified counselor even once tend to continue seeking positive treatment.”

Saving just one life has a major ripple effect, according to research, and WSU Extension’s statewide work is making an impact.

“Losing one farmer to suicide is one too many,” McMoran said. “Through Extension’s broad safety net, programming, and one-on-one outreach, we’ve documented many saved lives.”

Further information

A statewide team of Extension professionals address mental health and stress in agriculture. More information on Extension’s work to support mental health in the ag field can be found in this article from CAHNRS News.