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Rural Mental Health Outreach Program Saves Lives

Minnesota Focuses on Mental Health for Farmers and Their Families

We rely on farmers for the food that we eat, but until recently, the mental health of those farmers has been overlooked. Midwestern farmers are now getting the focus and attention they need through the Rural Mental Health Outreach program. This Minnesota-based program has likely saved many U.S. farmers’ lives.

This unique program, sponsored by the Minnesota state legislature, is heavily utilized. A January 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared to other occupations. USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting underscored that report when they found hundreds of farmers in Midwestern states have died by suicide in the past few years. 

Farming has a unique set of stressors. Farms are often passed down from generation to generation, which places unique demands on a son or a daughter to continue with the family tradition. The unsteady, unpredictable nature of farm work often leads to marital strain and family conflict. The success of farming is often tied to the climate, land, social, economic, and political events beyond an individual’s or family’s control.

The Rural Mental Health Outreach program was created to assist farmers in handling those stressors. What began with just one counselor, Ted Matthews, recently expanded to two full-time counselors working 24-7 to handle calls and concerns from farmers and their families. Each counselor has special training and understanding of farm life. All counselors come from farm families, and understand how difficult it can be for a farmer to reach out in a time of crisis. Ever since then, the need keeps growing. During his first year in the 1990s, Matthews saw around 30 people. In 2020, he’s counseled 20 farm families, 15 couples, 40 individuals, and eight farm business management instructors and their families. In many cases, those utilizing the services indicated they were on the verge of drastic action.

Rural Mental Health first gained national attention during the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, when a National Farm Medicine Center study found 913 male farmers died by suicide in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana from 1980 to 1988. Since then, states have looked at ways to focus on the mental health needs of farmers. Minnesota’s Rural Mental Health Outreach took the lead. This year’s caseload led the state to double the annual budget to $250,000 for additional staffing. 

Other states are very interested in following. Minnesota’s program has become so successful other states are calling Matthews for training sessions and advice on how to start something similar. Matthews said he has trained farm bureaus and county extensions in several states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and Iowa.  Recently, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau launched a 24/7 mental health hotline and telehealth services. In November 2020, the Farm Center in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection joined a multi-state effort aimed at strengthening farmers’ mental wellness. The center, which provides resources and services to agricultural communities throughout the state, will further develop farmer focus groups and offer mental health provider training. Over several years, Wisconsin will receive more than $400,000 to provide support to farmers, agriculture-related businesses, and mental health providers. 

These new programs spread beyond the Midwest. Utah State University’s Extension department recently partnered with 13 states on a new program called the Western Region Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network Grant. This pilot program is based on the assertion that rural areas are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to mental health education. Based purely on ease of access, it can be easier for people in urban areas to find help when in need; those same luxuries often don’t apply to all those in rural areas.

American farmers produce nearly all of the country’s food and contribute $133 billion annually to the gross domestic product. They are a vital part of our nation’s economy, health, and overall well-being. Many farmers overlook their mental health, affected by the instability of owning a farm. These new programs are a positive, often life-saving, support system for farmers and their families across the country.

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