UMN Extension aims to raise mental health awareness in rural areas

A 2017 University study found that farmers have higher suicide rates than any other occupation.

by Katrina Pross

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture last week launched a six-week workshop series aimed at educating farmers’ families and friends, as well as law enforcement, about farmers and mental health.

The “Down on the Farm” sessions, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension, will teach people in farming communities to recognize the warning signs of mental and emotional distress and provide information about resources that are available to farmers.

“Because farmers live in rural areas, they often don’t know where to go to get help,” said Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association Deputy Director of Professional Development Randy Willis, who will present at the workshops. 

Since sheriffs are the primary law enforcement agencies in most farming communities, they need to be educated about mental health, Willis said. Willis hopes that through the workshops, law enforcement will gain more tools to provide distressed farmers with resources before a problem turns into a crisis. 

Mental health is a challenge for farmers as many aspects of the occupation like price and marketing uncertainties, production challenges and farm transfer issues can lead to emotional distress, said Director of Mental Health Outreach Ted Matthews from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“The planting and harvest system is not easy for them, and the uncertainty that comes with farming can cause a lot of stress and anxiety,” Matthews said.

Because farmers live in rural areas and have small social networks, they often feel they don’t have support and can’t trust mental health care professionals. Farmers also have busy schedules and often can’t find time for counseling appointments, Matthews said.

A University study published last spring brought attention to the lack of mental health care in farming communities. The study analyzed suicide and homicide rates in farmers from 1992-2010. 

“Farmers have a higher suicide rather than all other occupations,” said Marizen Ramirez, a School of Public Health professor and co-author of the study. 

For other occupations, work-related suicide rates are 0.3-0.9 per 100,000 workers. However, farmers have a suicide rate that is three to five times higher — about 1 per 300,000 people, Ramirez said. 

Last October, the Department of Agriculture launched a 24/7 mental health helpline for farmers to accommodate their busy schedules, which Matthews said has been successful. 

Matthews talks to callers over the phone but also makes house calls. He said he connects with farmers by building relationships with people in their social networks.

“Farmers trust the people that they work with, and whoever they work with trusts me,” Matthews said. 

Farmers’ family members are often impacted by their mental health because they live in tight-knit communities, and their personal lives cross into their work lives, Ramirez said.

By being cognizant about how to best reach rural communities and offering mental health resources, suicide can be prevented, Ramirez said. More creative and innovative methods of care and education, such as telesupport — like the Department of Agriculture helpline — may be effective, she said. 

More “Down on the Farm” workshops will be held in Austin, Mankato, Grand Rapids and Thief River Falls, running from Feb. 21 until March 15.