Report from the field: Behavioral Health and Wellness in Agriculture Summit

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The beautiful bright fall colors were starting to spot the mountainside. It was mid-September, along the Arkansas River into Salida, Colorado where the inaugural Behavioral Health and Wellness in Agriculture Summit would be held. Organized by AgWell, a program of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the summit had been a long time coming.

A few years ago, J.C. Carrica of the Southeast Health Group, based in Rocky Ford, CO (population 3,800) was thinking about how to approach the rising number of suicide rates in the area and  the very real and growing mental health crisis in rural communities of Colorado. 

He knew recognizing when someone is struggling is a key to offering help, so J.C. created “The Coffee Break Project,” where locals gather for coffee and donuts and to share what’s on their mind. Now, people have a place to talk and get acquainted with people who know how to listen. 

Ag communities are a different bunch, working around the clock as a daily norm, and giving it all until the wheels fall off, almost literally. It’s often acquaintances, neighbors, or old friends you see in town who recognize the sounds of distress, but they don’t always know what to do about it. That’s where the Changing Our Mental and Emotional Trajectory (or COMET) training comes in, to help peers who aren’t trained as mental health providers.

Across Colorado, farmers and ranchers are deeply affected by a range of issues, including things they cannot control like the ongoing drought, floods or wildfires. Talk with anyone in ag and you’ll hear it first-hand. J.C. saw there was a lot of love for our stubborn, hard-working, and proud ag communities, who often resist seeking mental health assistance. 

Then there are the cultures within the culture, as LeeAnne Sanders of Rocky Mountain Farmers’ Union (RMFU) shared. Her time in Mexico helped her engage with Colorado’s immigrant ag community. “Ser inmigrante es estresante!” she said in Spanish. “It is stressful to be an immigrant” doesn’t have the same rhyming ring to it in English, but the consensus is clear: there’s a big need for more Spanish language assistance and training across the state.

The Behavioral Health and Wellness in Agriculture Summit, organized by AgWell’s Clinton Wilson and his team, focused on building relationships between organizations providing behavioral and mental health services to ag communities across Colorado, including farm and ranch owners, farm workers, migrant laborers, and their friends and families. Southeast Health Group was one of the key partners attending this event, which brought together professionals in the mental and behavioral health profession who are in tune with ag’s distinct cultural needs that can be unfamiliar to the rest of society.

Salida mental health summit participants

Other attendees of the summit included Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), Colorado Farm Bureau, La Plata Family Centers Coalition (LPFCC), LandLogic, Western Sports Foundation, Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program (WRASAP), Colorado AgrAbility and Farm Aid

Working around proper internet service in the deepest pockets of rural Colorado is hardly new, but the opportunity to brainstorm in-person was a motivation everyone embraced. No one entered or left the summit empty-handed, sharing in rich experiences, stories, and resources for a mutual quest in reaching the beloved rural aggies, from immigrant laborer to high stakes producer.  

During the inaugural summit, the group recharged one another, shared tearful moments, and returned home as a broader and stronger network across Colorado and the West. 

Salida mental health summit

The Behavioral Health and Wellness in Agriculture Summit took place September 28-29 in Salida, CO. The summit was the culmination of more than a year of partnership between AgWell, CDA, and four other partners who received funding through a USDA/NIFA grant to support mental health services in rural communities. In 2021, CDA was awarded $500,000 from NIFA to support the vitality and mental wellbeing of Colorado's agricultural workers and producers through community-based efforts to manage the increasing stresses on our agricultural communities. The Grant includes five partners: Southeast Health Group, Colorado AgrAbility, La Plata Family Centers Coalition, Colorado Farm Bureau, and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union’s AgWell program.

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