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WSU Extension helps implement new 988 suicide prevention hotline

Person holding a card that reads, "Don't give up on your story. It is worth fighting for."

As of July 16, anyone in the United States can call or text the number 9‑8‑8, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if they or someone they know shows signs of crisis, especially suicide.

The number works much like 911, with calls routed based on where someone is calling from. For states that don’t have local services established, calls automatically reroute to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“This stems from the need to be available for mental health emergencies,” said Don McMoran, a Washington State University Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension educator and member of Washington’s taskforce for implementing 988. “Everyone knows you call 911 in an emergency. Mental health has a lot of numbers available, so 988 should be easier to remember when time is vital.”

McMoran leads the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which covers 13 western states and four U.S. territories, thanks to a $7 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

WSU Extension has several active programs working to reduce and eliminate suicide in the state.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens in Washington,” said Ashley Hall, a 4‑H assistant professor based in Snohomish County. “I’m hoping 988 is as simple and effective as 911 and helps reduce the stigma around mental health.”

Hall is involved in a program, led by her colleague Stephanie Roeter Smith, that implements research-based suicide prevention strategies for youths. The program provides trainings for parents and volunteers so they can recognize signs and symptoms in young people.

Hall and Smith also work closely with teens to provide leadership opportunities and training. Those opportunities have led to a program called “4‑H Teens Helping Teens,” which started earlier this year with teens in three different Washington counties talking about mental health and suicide prevention via social media.

“It’s very rewarding to volunteer for such an important cause,” said Abby Ruddell, a 16‑year‑old member of the “4‑H Teens Helping Teens” program. “The teen suicide awareness and prevention project is making resources readily available, and in ways that make it less scary to talk about. Our goal is to get the conversations started, have people seek help, change the way we talk about suicide, and ultimately, to prevent it.”

Children work at a teens helping teens both this past spring.
A Teens Helping Teens booth at this past spring’s Washington Apple Blossom Festival in Wenatchee.

Another way Hall and Roeter Smith’s program is helping is by having people attend community events and passing out info and safety measures.

“Firearm death, including suicide and other gun deaths, has overtaken auto accidents for youth as the leading cause of death,” Hall said. “And attempts of suicide with firearms are more likely to be lethal than other methods.”

Along those lines, Hall and Roeter Smith teamed up with McMoran to give away gun safes to anyone who asks for one. Hall, who leads the 4‑H Shooting Sports program in Washington, said locking up firearms slows down people contemplating suicide and buys invaluable seconds or minutes.

“The mental pause that happens when you have to go to a safe and open it often gives people enough time to get into a better mental space,” McMoran said.

Overall, he said more than 250 safes have been distributed around the state at no cost. Recipients are asked to complete a short, anonymous survey, but nothing more. McMoran hopes to purchase 100 more safes to give away.

McMoran’s program is aimed at helping prevent suicide in agricultural and rural communities around Washington and the other states in his larger USDA-funded program. One of the people working with him is Alyssa Wade, a WSU Extension Farm Stress and Suicide Prevention coordinator.

“I go to functions with cattlemen, loggers, farmers, and farm workers. As soon as mental health and stressors come up, things get quiet,” Wade said. “They’re paying attention; there’s such a stigma about mental health. But I can see how stressed they are.”

At a recent wheat growers meeting, she said she talked with a farmer for half an hour about the financial stress he faced and his cousin’s death by suicide. She gave him informational resources and magnets with the suicide hotline number as well as her business card, adding she was available to talk anytime.

“Being able to admit he was struggling seemed like a huge relief for him,” Wade said. “He really needed to talk to someone. And I felt like I may have saved a life that day.”

Financial stress is one of the biggest factors in agriculture workers’ mental health. To directly address that topic, WSU Extension Economist Shannon Neibergs joined McMoran’s program to help.

“There can be incredible stress created by poor profitability and profit risks,” Neibergs said.

He and Extension Specialist Jon Driver are doing workshops to talk directly with farmers about record keeping, insurance programs, and management philosophies, then offering one‑on‑one financial management counseling for those who want more information.

Their goal is to conduct workshops across Washington. So far, they have talked with hay growers, cattle ranchers, and eastern Washington farmers and beginning farmers, with the hope of meeting with orchard growers in central Washington this fall and covering western Washington after that.

“It’s exciting to be able to provide this service,” Neibergs said. “Reducing growers’ fears and increasing their efficiency and providing cost of production tools can help address the needs of people at high risk for suicide attempts.”

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