“I want people to know that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay to get help. It's okay to talk to somebody,” said Kimberlee Stinson, a Colorado rancher who lost her father, Rusty Walter, to suicide.
Rusty Walter isn’t an anomaly. Farmers, ranchers and members of rural communities across the country are struggling with mental health challenges. Recognizing this, CoBank partnered with the Colorado Agriculture Department and others in the ag community to help connect people to important resources.
The downfall of the “do-it-yourself” culture
Rusty Walter, was, as his daughter Kimberlee Stinson described him, Mr. Fix-It. Whatever the problem, Rusty thought he could address it himself, a broken leg, an injured cow, it didn’t matter. Even as he suffered from depression, he didn’t think he needed to reach out for help managing his mental health. His attitude was, “I should be able to get through this. I'm stronger than this. I should be able to do it myself,” said Kimberlee.
But the life of a rancher can be difficult. It’s isolating, fixing fence by yourself all day; unpredictable, responding to the ever-changing weather conditions; and stressful, managing complex finances. “All that struggle just adds up,” Rusty’s son, Jacob Walter, said.
When things got tough, Kimberlee and Jacob could tell. Rusty’s smile changed, he didn’t seem the same. But even still, he didn’t open up about the challenges he faced; he didn’t let his family in on the struggle. Instead, Rusty internalized all his stress.
One day, it became too much.
“That morning my husband and I were going out there to help my dad move cows. We had heard a gunshot when we got there, but he was already gone,” said Kimberlee.
The family was devastated. “Suicide doesn't end the pain. It just passes it on to somebody else. And in this case, it passed on to so many people,” said Kimberlee.
Reflecting on what happened, both Jacob and Kimberlee wish their dad had reached out for support sooner.
“We need to look out for each other. I think we all can recognize when someone's not acting the same,” said Jacob. “You wouldn't let your crop die or your cattle die; you take care of them. So why, why wouldn't you take care of your friends, your neighbors?”
Kimberlee said, “I want people to know that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay to get help. It's okay to talk to somebody.”
And in the case of Colorado, that somebody can be the Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255). On a national level, anyone can call 800-273-8255.
Creating the crisis call line
In July 2018, the Center for Disease Control released a study that found rural counties in the U.S. had the highest rates of suicide in the country. In Colorado, suicide rates in the state’s eastern plains doubled from 2016 to 2017.
In response to this increase, and to an increase in economic stress among agricultural producers at the time, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) partnered with Colorado State University, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Crisis Services to address the problem. The 24/7 crisis call line, 1-844-493-TALK (8255), helps individuals facing challenges similar to those faced by Rusty Walter.
An intentional, rural focus
CDA provided training for those taking the crisis calls to understand and speak with callers from rural areas. For example, if a distressed rancher called the crisis line and said, “I had to sell my herd,” CDA wanted to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone would understand that “selling the herd,” is a serious decision that has impacts on one’s livelihood and one’s identity.
CDA also worked with the coalition to distribute info cards with both talk and text numbers for the Colorado Crisis Services, strategically in Colorado’s rural areas. For example, they promoted the crisis call line at events integral to the ag community, such as the Colorado State Fair, the National Western Stock Show, the Colorado Farm Show, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union conference, among others.
Change is happening
As a result of these targeted efforts, calls and texts to the crisis line from Colorado’s rural areas increased 15 percent in 18 months, and many mental health agencies began reaching out for ag-specific materials. Some of these organizations even told CDA that this was the first time they’d seen mental health crisis efforts directed toward their communities. Beyond Colorado, other states have contacted CDA for guidance in creating their own programs, a major goal of the project.
Stepping up their game
CoBank saw how the utilization of the crisis call line was increasing and that it was effective – with 60 percent of callers resolving concerns in only one phone call. And they felt that there was a strong need to continue to promote and enhance outreach and awareness of the call and text numbers.
Together, CoBank and CDA’s coalition created a video about Rusty and his family. By sharing the Walters’ story, the coalition hopes to destigmatize conversations about mental health in rural communities, raise awareness about the struggles folks are facing, educate neighbors about the warning signs of suicide and spread the word about the Colorado crisis line.
Collaboration and a local focus were key
“What impressed me the most was the collaborative nature of this project. It truly is a team effort across agriculture and rural-focused entities in Colorado, with the wellbeing of their constituencies top of mind,” said Sarah Tyree, vice president of policy and public affairs at CoBank. “CoBank is proud to sponsor this locally-led coalition as they address an issue so crucial to the agriculture community, especially in our home state of Colorado.”
"Amplifying the conversation surrounding mental health and confronting the stigma that is so prevalent, especially in rural communities, is among our top priorities at the Colorado Department of Agriculture," said Commissioner Kate Greenberg. "The shared passion and hard work on this issue among our diverse stakeholders is key to the increase in awareness and actions we're seeing statewide and nationally."
The collaboration group also created a toolkit, available upon request in both Spanish and English, that includes print materials, posters, wallet cards, radio materials, video materials and digital banners.