Washington House bill calls for counseling for farmers

Washington state Republican Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm has proposed appointing a task force to study providing free mental health counseling to farmers and farmworkers. Wilcox cites a high suicide rate among farmers as the reason for the bill.

OLYMPIA — One day before the USDA predicted farm income will slump in 2018, the Washington House budget committee voted unanimously to study giving farmers and farmworkers free mental health counseling.

The timing was coincidental, but the events are related. Farm advocates say failure haunts the industry and contributes to a high suicide rate.

“What you have in the farming world are people that are deeply committed,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Yelm Republican with a farming background. “They are people that perhaps have a tradition of not asking for a lot of help and not being interested in a lot of talk. But it is super high stress, and you have the unusual weight of generations on your shoulders,”

Wilcox said he introduced House Bill 2671 after reading a story about farmer suicides in the Guardian newspaper. His bill would create a task force to study providing counseling statewide. As a test, the state would contract for counseling services in one Western Washington county.

House Health Care and Wellness Committee Chairwoman Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, said it was “a bit shocking” to learn a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found farmers, loggers and commercial fishermen have the highest suicide rate among all occupations. “I think it’s a great bill,” she said.

The Appropriations Committee advanced the bill to the full House Feb. 6. The next day, the USDA forecast that farm profits this year would drop by 6.7 percent to the lowest level since 2006.

Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said there was program a little more than a decade ago to provide farmers with counseling. The program ran out of money after about 3 1/2 years, he said.

“As we’re seeing commodity prices today also getting fairly low, I think the timing on this bill is very good,” Gordon said.

The CDC survey, which is cited in the bill, was released in 2016. It looked at about 12,300 suicides in 2012 in 17 states. Washington was not one of the states, though Oregon was. Idaho and California also were not included.

The study sorted victims into 22 occupational categories. Farming, fishing and forestry formed one category. The suicide rate for that group was 84.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. The victims were overwhelmingly male.

The next highest suicide rate was for workers in construction and extraction industries such as mining, with 53.3 suicides per 100,000 people.

The CDC report speculated that factors contributing to suicide among farmers could include social isolation, potential for financial losses, barriers to and unwillingness to seek counseling, and access to lethal means of suicide.

The CDC noted the limitations of the study. The 17 states are not representative of the entire nation, and in 6 percent of the cases, the victims’ occupations couldn’t be determined. A forthcoming study on 2014 suicides in 32 states could provide more insight, according to the CDC.

It won’t be known until March whether House and Senate budget writers will fund Wilcox’s proposal. The Health Department estimates the bill would add $485,000 to the current budget. The House and Senate budget committees are advancing more bills than can possibly be funded.

Still, HB 2671 has broad support. The Washington State Labor Council and Washington State Psychiatric Association endorsed it.

State Agriculture Director Derek Sandison appeared to testify when the bill was in front of the health committee.

“Behavioral health of our agricultural workers and our farmers is important on a humanitarian level, but it’s also very important for the longevity and viability of the state’s agricultural industry,” he said.

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