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A farmer looks out over a field during sunset.

OSU Medicine, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture partner to study mental health of farmers and ranchers

Monday, February 14, 2022

Media Contact: Sara Plummer | Communications Coordinator | 918-561-1282 | sara.plummer@okstate.edu

Recently, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry was awarded a $500,000 grant by the United States Department of Agriculture to study mental health conditions of farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma, as well as develop ways to assist rural Oklahomans struggling with their mental health. The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture has partnered with OSU Center for Health Sciences and OSU Extension to spearhead this initiative.

Dr. Jason Beaman, chair of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at OSU-CHS, is leading a large-scale research study looking at mental health and agriculture outcomes.

OSU Center for Rural Health’s Denna Wheeler, director of rural research and evaluation, and Mark Woodring, assistant dean of rural health, will conduct surveys and focus groups with ranchers and farmers to provide even more information regarding mental health conditions, prevention and treatment.

Other programs funded by the one-year grant include the new Project ECHO line, Heal the Harvester, that aims to increase awareness of needs and resources to support ranchers and farmers experiencing mental health crises. 

OSU Extension offices can then help connect farmers and ranchers with mental health resources and qualified health care professionals, and eventually, provide a place for telemedicine services.

Beaman said it was the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture that approached OSU-CHS and OSU Extension with this extensive project and grant. 

“The ODAFF have prioritized mental health and mental illness, which is incredibly important. Other people are thinking outside the box and are prioritizing mental health,” he said.

Having that kind of information will not only help families but the state’s future and economy.

Work is already underway and Beaman said research has already found a likely correlation between wheat prices and suicide.

“That’s really vital and important information to know. We have a lot more to drill down on,” he said, and the stigma of having a mental health condition or illness may play a factor in research outcomes and lead to possible education programs and awareness campaigns about mental health.

“Our hypothesis is being a farmer or rancher is more than just an occupation, it’s a lifestyle. Imagine if your entire livelihood was tied to a commodity that has ups and downs and could crash overnight for reasons beyond your control,” he said. “It may not be just your job that you lose, it may be your child’s job, your brother’s job. Families are very connected, and it’s hard for that not to affect you down to your core.”

Beaman said suicide is completed when people feel they don’t have any other options, and while farmers may not lose their job because they are self-employed, that does not mean they cannot experience significant loss and feel like they are out of options. 

During the one-year grant period, Beaman also hopes to research if correlations exist between items like wheat prices and cattle prices and substance use disorders.

When the research is collected and analyzed, the goal is to develop targeted prevention and treatment programs as well as expand access to mental health care.

“My department of psychiatry will be working with advocacy organizations, including a powerful partner in this initiative, the OSU Extension Office, to make sure mental health care is available to farmers and ranchers anywhere in Oklahoma,” he said.

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