DUCHESNE, Utah (KUTV) — People in rural ranching and farming communities like Duchesne and Roosevelt are trying to combat the high suicide rate there by connecting with people in ways that haven’t been done before — and it’s urgent.
While Utah’s suicide rate is higher than the national rate, The Utah Department of Health reports the state’s highest suicide rate (per 100,000 residents) is in the Tri County area, which includes Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties.
This is disturbing news, especially given that fewer than 60,000 people live in the area.
The willingness to talk openly about suicide is a challenge anywhere, but it seems more so in this community filled with hard-working, independent farmers and ranchers, construction and oil field workers who are used to fending for themselves — even when their mental health and lives are at stake.
“We have a lot of people worried about asking for help. Kinda the 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' mentality,” said Robin Hatch, suicide prevention coordinator with Northeastern Counseling Center, which is the mental health and substance use agency for the Tri County area.
If farmers and ranchers in this community don’t seek out help, Hatch, and Jeramie Tubbs who does suicide prevention for the Tri County Health Department, seek out the farmers and ranchers to give them a message: If you need help, if you are in crisis, there is help.
Tubbs said most ranchers and farmers don’t want people to know their mental health is suffering and certainly don’t want anyone to see their truck parked in front of a mental health establishment.
She tries to counter the dangerous stigma associated with suicide by clarifying that it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.
“We really push the message that if you have toothache, you got to the dentist. If you are having a problem with your health, you’d see a cardiologist. If your brain is ill, why is there a stigma to getting help for your brain?”
To spread that message, the women pair up and travel to places where people in farming and ranching communities gather. They target gun owners — which is mostly everyone in this community.
They say by far, most suicides in this area happen with a firearm — usually a long gun. By far, it’s adult men who are dying by suicide here.
They remind people that if someone they know is in crisis, they shouldn’t have access to firearms at all. The women, who are both gun owners, ask people to recognize their own responsibility in helping loved ones avoid suicide.
“It’s OK to say. ‘You know what? I’m really worried about you. Maybe you need to let me store your firearms for a while,'" Hatch said.
At the Duchesne Cattlemen Expo, they set up a booth with the usual brochures and information about suicide prevention. But their main handouts are long gun socks that bear the suicide lifeline number: 1-800-273-TALK. They also give away flashlights and farmers almanacs that bear the same number.
The hope is that in a moment of crisis, when a farmer or rancher is alone, he might look at the number and make the decision to call for help. The women know from research about people who survive suicides, that the decision to end one’s own life is often an impulsive one — made in about 10 minutes.
Their creative way of dispersing the suicide hotline number on gun socks is done with this information in mind.
“We want to make sure this number is on an item they won’t throw away quickly or dispose of, like a brochure,” Hatch said.
Tubbs said as many farmers and ranchers often work alone, in their tractors, on their fields or ranches, calling the suicide hotline number is something they can do in private.
“They could call the line from their truck, from their tractor,” she said.
Isolation in rural communities is a risk factor when it comes to suicide. Farmers and ranchers work long hours, from sun up to sundown, checking on animals. Often, they don’t live near neighbors.
“They don’t spend a lot of time in town. They aren’t at coffee shops. There’s work to be done,” said Tubbs, indicating that makes it harder for people to reach out to others for help if they are in a mental health crisis.
In an effort to reach farmers and ranchers more easily, the Tri County Health Department produced a public service announcement on video and for radio.
Dan Crozier, a cattle rancher from Roosevelt, lent his voice to the radio ad.
Crozier is like many in his community: hard-working, and has no desire to be in the spotlight.
He got out of his privacy and comfort zone to put his voice on the ad because he knows the pain of suicide personally. He's known 11 people who'v died by suicide, including in his immediate family.
He knows the pain that ripples through families and the community when suicide happens.
“You start questioning why? What did I do? What could I have done?” he said.
Crozier said it’s time to talk about suicide more openly and encourage each other to get help.
“As family members, maybe there’s a way we could do more to be aware of who we are looking at across the table,” he said.
Crozier agrees that isolation in rural areas can be a major risk factor.
Another risk factor: The cost of farming and ranching is always going up, and profits seem to be going down.
Kerry Gibson, former commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture, has spoken publicly about his concerns over suicide in farming communities.
He said when unpredictable weather, increasing expenses, tariffs and other unpredictable factors put the family farm or ranch at risk, it’s a huge burden on that farmer or rancher.
“This is not just an average business where someone can close the doors and do something else. Many times these operations have been in the same families for generations,” he said.