Oklahoma Stories

Healing Harvest

By Miguel Rios April 2022

Oklahoma's farmers and ranchers could soon have more access to mental health resources

Elderly man staring out of a rustic wooden window
Photo by ysbrandcosijn – stock.adobe.com

A $500,000 grant awarded to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF) will allow them to partner with OSU Center for Health Sciences (OSU-CHS) to study mental health conditions of farmers and ranchers in the state.

“OSU-CHS is the expert. That’s why we partnered with them,” says Meriruth Cohenour, ODAFF director of market development. “We wanted the money to benefit as many Oklahomans as possible, especially our farmers and ranchers who we know have a stake in the mental health priorities because that’s typically an underserved population as far as mental health resources.”

Oklahoma’s Secretary of Agriculture, Blayne Arthur, personally approached OSU-CHS to learn more about the topic, says Dr. Jason Beaman, OSU-CHS chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“That’s pretty innovative and incredible forethought on her part,” he says. “There’s so much that goes into the occupation of being a farmer and a rancher that could put them at increased risk of mental illness like depression and addiction, and we can’t paint everybody in Oklahoma with the same brush.”

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will enable OSU-CHS to conduct large-scale research, surveys, focus groups and then provide access to resources. Beaman says they will study agricultural data merged with behavioral data to discover any trends.

“For example, if wheat prices go down, does that correspond to an increase in overdoses in large wheat-producing counties? The first bucket is trying to understand things like that at a very, very large level. The second bucket is trying to understand that at a very individual level by doing different interviews and surveys on targeted focus groups of farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma to find out what’s important to them. The third bucket is trying to provide immediate access,” Beaman says.

The OSU Department of Psychiatry is partnering with the OSU Office of Extension to place access points for farmers and ranchers throughout the state.

“We’re going to provide three strategic access points around the state of Oklahoma at our extension offices to try and provide support,” Beaman says. “We anticipate those points to be up and running by the beginning of the summer hopefully.”

OSU-CHS’s Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) connects groups of community providers with specialists to help people gain expertise needed to provide services. As part of the grant, a new Project ECHO ‘line’ was launched: Heal the Harvester.

“Essentially, every other week for one hour, I provide education to anyone who is interested but is also involved in contacting the farmer and ranchers,” he says. “As we get closer to the end of the grant, we’ll be updating that audience on that outcome that we’ve discovered so far in our research.”

Beaman says research on the mental health of farmers and ranchers is still relatively unique. As he goes further into his research, he’s been approached by people in other states who are beginning similar projects.

“Our farmers and ranchers are an often neglected subgroup of health care,” he says. “By the nature of their job, they represent a lot of unique characteristics that I think deserve focus. At OSU with our commitment to agriculture and at the medical school with the commitment to rural and underserved areas, this is the perfect population for us to study and make sure they’re not being neglected.

“I think we are going to really kind of put Oklahoma on the map for our research in this area. But also other states are going to use our research to help their farmers and ranchers.”

For people interested in getting involved or looking for resources, email Beaman. For more information on Project ECHO, visit the Center for Health Sciences page.

Category: Oklahoma Stories

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