DENVER — Colorado lawmakers advanced a pair of bills on Wednesday that aim to increase access to mental health care for the state’s agricultural workers and rural communities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people working in agriculture are more likely to die by suicide than those working in other industries. In Colorado, agriculture ranks third highest for suicide rates among industries, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
“It can be a lot of different things. And a lot of times, it's that isolation and sometimes some cultural challenges,” said Dan Waldvogle, director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents 15,000 farmers and ranchers in Colorado. “I think a lot of farmers and ranchers, we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps type, and sometimes it's a little bit more challenging to seek care.”
Experts say mental health challenges for agriculture workers have grown in recent years due in large part to the pandemic, climate change and financial challenges.
Waldvogle testified in support of Senate Bill 24-055, a bill by State Senators Janice Marchman, D-Larimer County, and Perry Will, R-Garfield County.
“Hearing from all of the farmers and ranchers last year, it became really clear that there are a lot of issues that are out of their control that cause tremendous problems for them,” said Marchman.
Their bill would create a workgroup of leaders and experts in mental health and agriculture. They’d be tasked with finding ways to improve access to care for farmers and ranchers, many of whom live in what are known as mental health deserts, or areas lacking adequate mental health resources.
The bill would also create an agricultural and rural community behavior health liaison who would connect state officials with rural community leaders and members of the agricultural community. It would require state officials to host an annual in-person summit for organizations seeking to promote behavioral health among agricultural workers.
“I know for certain individuals out there that this bill's going to help and have an impact in these communities that we're trying to help, and it will be a lifeline to some people,” said Will.
The bill was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee by a vote of 8-1.
The committee also heard testimony for Senate Bill 24-057, which is being sponsored by State Sen. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora. The bill would create the agriculture workforce mental health and suicide prevention program in the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
The program would create a public awareness campaign to promote suicide prevention among agriculture workers. It would also create a confidential crisis support hotline for agriculture workers.
The bill passed the committee by a vote of 5-3.