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Agricultural Worker Mental Health in Southern Colorado

minute read

Written by Nick Stoll on June 1, 2023

Katherine A. James, PhD, MSPH, MSCE, traditionally focuses her research on environmental exposures and epidemiology while holding long-standing community partners in the San Luis Valley (SLV). While doing a preliminary assessment for environmental health hazards for the agriculture workforce in Southern Colorado, her community partners sounded an alarm for a behavioral health crisis in the Ag community. James quickly redirected her attention to these health disparities.

Her research team within the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health has recently finished collecting data for a behavioral health assessment of agriculture workers in the SLV.

The SLV has some of the richest Colorado heritage and history, going back to its original indigenous stewards followed by settlers from Mexican territories in the 1800s. The regional economy draws heavily from the production of crops like potatoes, lettuce, and various grains. The SLV’s climate is unique due to the valley’s high elevation and mountain ranges. Historically, the community has used acequias redirect mountain water runoff and ground water wells to irrigate regional crops.

A historic drought – an instigator of stress

Current prolonged drought conditions have stressed access to water resources. Some farmers in the regions, recognizing the urgency of the matter, have signed easements to leave fields barren in order to protect the health of the underground aquifer. Despite these efforts, drought conditions continue and act as a major stressor to agriculture workers.

Using a Total Worker Health® approach, our research team developed a survey to assess worker well-being. We incorporated aspects of the NIOSH WellBQ, the GAD-7, and CES-D to better understand worker wellness and behavioral health, and also incorporated social network analysis to better understand how the Ag workers’ social networks support their well-being, and which community resources are interfacing with this population.

The term “mental health” can often be associated with depression, anxiety, and other intangible health effects. While these associations are true, they often leave out the behavioral and tangible health effects a person can experience due to deficits in mental health. This study assesses behavioral health in these workers as that approach encompasses the domains of mental health and behavioral and physical factors.

Dynamics of a dual workforce

Recently, we finished an organization survey to see how community advocacy groups and providers are engaging with Ag workers. We are now focused on analyzing the data from this survey and working with community partners to interpret and disseminate the findings.

The agriculture workforce in the SLV can be categorized into two major categories – farm owner/operators and the labor workforce. When looking at our sample stratified by these groups, we see notable differences in behavioral health stressors. Farm owners/operators are experiencing significant stress surrounding the changing regional climate, access to water resources, and financial strain. The labor workforce is experiencing additional stress from access to nutritious and affordable food, economic inequalities, and barriers to accessing local resources.

SLV Farmers event

Local leaders take charge

Recruiting Ag workers to take this online survey has been difficult as they are largely offline, and may conform to traditionally masculine or machismo/macho stereotypes. These stereotypes are often characterized by ideologies that suggest men must be “strong” and may discourage expressing emotions or being emotionally vulnerable. Within these constraints, men may be encouraged to ignore their struggles or the need for additional support.

To better reach Ag workers, our team elicited the help of local community leaders Augusto Basterrechea, Anna Lee Vargas, Shirley Romero, and Christine Canaly (Director, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council) to host four community events across the region. These events provided a free, locally sourced meal and hosted booths for local health resources. Participants were given $40 gift cards for participating in the survey.

Word-of-mouth and capitalizing on local knowledge were crucial in making these events a success. We would not have been able to reach these people without the local knowledge and leadership.

We hope to continue our current momentum by partnering with local organizations to address the disparities that we find from our survey results. These partners are often more knowledgeable about local networks and available resources and how to efficiently bring all these efforts together. By allowing local organizations to lead intervention efforts, we can better support community well-being.