Legislator moves on farmworker suicide epidemic

J.T. Wilcox, a Republican representing Washington's 2nd legislative district, sponsored a bill dealing with mental health in rural communities

J.T. Wilcox grew up in a farm setting. He recalls it fondly as a way to support your family and a way to hold a sense of pride in your own work.

The Republican from Yelm represents Washington’s Second Legislative District in the Washington State House of Representatives and he still feels ties to farmers and farm workers.

That’s why he took the lead on sponsoring House Bill 2671, which will establish a task force of mental health experts who will aim to reduce the rate of farm workers committing suicide.

“I read an article in The Guardian in December that said farmers have the highest occupational suicide rate in the world,” Wilcox said. “I grew up in the golden age of farming, but I also witnessed the collapse. The economy forced people out.”

The article, by Debbie Weingarten, suggested that the suicide rates of farmers in America’s west were more than five times that of the general population. Even then, those numbers might be skewed because some farmers likely disguise suicides as farm accidents. Farmers were far more likely to commit suicide in Australia and the United Kingdom as well, the data suggested.

As agribusiness continues to consolidate around the world, smaller family farms are becoming rarer and rarer. Small farmers struggle with debt and the question of how they will provide for their families.

The bill, which requires the State Office of Rural Health to convene a task force on behavioral health and suicide prevention in the industry, passed unanimously in the House and Senate, was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee.

“To get anything through Olympia unanimously is huge,” Wilcox said. “I had a lot of help. This has been gut-wrenching for two generations of farming families.”

While Wilcox said he hasn’t known anyone personally who has taken their own life, he acknowledges the deaths reverberate throughout the rural areas of the state.

The task force to be created by the bill will collect data about the mental health of agriculture workers, the factors affecting the behavioral health, components to include in a suicide prevention pilot program and opportunities to improve the behavioral health of those in the industry. The task force is due to present its findings on Dec. 1.

“Technology is giving us some effective ways to tackle problems,” Wilcox said. “What is the best possible science for addressing the problem? Most likely some form of peer counseling, rural people talking to rural people.”

Wilcox said he was glad people were beginning to pay attention to the issue, which has devastated farming communities for two decades. Based on the recommendations of the task force, the state Department of Health will then establish a pilot program in a county west of the Cascade Crest that is reliant on the agricultural industry. The pilot program will provide free counseling and suicide prevention resources, which will be available online or by phone in both English and Spanish.

“It’s important to get this right,” Wilcox said.


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