Tom Magnuson nursing home (copy)

Dr. Thomas Magnuson, a geriatric psychiatrist in Omaha, talks with a nurse at a facility in Wahoo, Nebraska.

The suicide rate for U.S. farmers and ranchers in 2015 was 1.5 times that for the general population, the Centers for Disease Control reports. Our society has great need to focus greater national attention on rural mental needs.

This concern isn’t limited to the U.S. — concern about agricultural producers’ mental health is a global issue, a recent BBC radio report noted. In countries including the U.S., Britain, France and India, “suicide rates among farmers are among the highest of any professional group,” the report said. A British psychotherapist specializing in rural mental health needs stated: “I’ve found that wherever I travel — I’ve spent a lot of time in the Southern Hemisphere, in Europe, in Scandinavia — almost everybody you talked to in the farming world, (mental health concerns) were very common.”

A British dairy farmer described how depression overcame her: “It started as a little tiny dot and it just took over. I wanted to continue what I was doing but I just couldn’t.” Medication and other supports eventually helped her recover.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently called attention to rural mental health needs in unveiling legislation on the issue. His proposal has three goals:

» Federal employees who interact directly with farmers would receive training to help them better pick up on signs of producers’ mental distress.

» Congress would appropriate $3 million to develop public service announcements to inform farmers and ranchers on how to get help for mental health needs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop the information.

» The USDA would work with state, local and nongovernmental stakeholders to develop collaborative strategies to better address mental health needs for ag producers.

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, a Sand Hills rancher, said she is currently looking into Tester’s proposal and noted, “It is crucial that we end the stigma associated with mental illness and ensure that those who seek support are able to find it. This is particularly true in rural areas where access can become more difficult.” Congress passed legislation last year that expands access to telehealth services, she said. She pointed to her work on the 2018 farm bill, which authorized $10 million annually through fiscal 2023 to increase mental health resources for agricultural communities.

“This funding is especially important now, as our producers are dealing with immense challenges from this year’s extreme flooding,” Fischer told The World-Herald.

In the Midlands, mental health hotlines are available for rural residents. In Nebraska, a primary resource is the Rural Response Hotline at 800-464-0258. The hotline is provided by the Farm Crisis Response Council through Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, with funding in part through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, state Office of Rural Health and Community Service Block Grant funds. In Iowa, the Helpline number is 855-800-1239.

Nebraska Farmer magazine last year listed some of the warning signs when agricultural producers need help for mental health issues. Some examples: Producers lack motivation and become less productive, or their mood changes. They abruptly sell land and livestock, or their equipment and farmsteads fall into disrepair. Their substance use increases. Their spouse, significant other and/or children show signs of stress.

State and local authorities, medical schools and nonprofits are working to bolster mental health outreach to Nebraska’s rural communities. In addition to increased use of telehealth services, mental health therapists are working in some primary care clinics across the state. Counseling and psychology interns work in rural primary care clinics that have behavioral health services integrated into patients’ overall care. Outreach to high school and college students introduces them to mental health and substance abuse treatment careers.

This increased focus on rural mental health needs is welcome and overdue. It’s imperative to follow with strengthened help for rural residents.

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