Rural mental-health funding doubtful, even as farm stress worsens

As stress in the farming sector rises across Colorado and nationwide, some mental health professionals are hoping the federal government will step in to fund mental health services through the 2010 Farm Bill.

A farm near Burlington, in Colorado's Kit Carson County (Creative Commons photo by Ty Motion via Flickr)

A farm near Burlington, in Colorado's Kit Carson County (Creative Commons photo by Ty Motion via Flickr)

But proponents of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network have just one last chance to convince Congress to fund — and not just authorize — a comprehensive mental health program for the agriculture sector. Its passage looks doubtful at best.

In Colorado, suicides among farmers and ranchers have been on the rise in the last five years. Nationwide, the largest crisis help line for agricultural workers, Iowa-based Sowing the Seeds of Hope, said calls are coming more often than they did even a year ago.

“In addition to the 20-percent increase in calls [when comparing the first four months of 2008 with the first four months of 2009], the content of the calls is changing,” said Dr. Mike Rosmann, executive director of AgriWellness, which helps sponsor Sowing the Seeds of Hope. “The callers are reporting much more severe economic turmoil, more mental health symptoms and significant increases in mental stress.”

“One farmer said to me I’m a fifth-generation farmer, and my parents and grandparents worked hard to get this land and save this land. And I could lose it this year. Can you imagine how that makes me feel?” said Dr. Robert Fetsch, professor of human development at Colorado State University.

And things aren’t getting less stressful anytime soon: Recently, the USDA forecast a net farm income decline of 38 percent in 2009.

In the dairy industry alone, exports have declined by between 25 and 40 percent in the last year, due to the global economic crisis, according to Cindy Haren, chief executive director of the Western Dairy Association. Meanwhile, expenses for dairy farmers have increased 50 percent in the last two years, she said.

Recognizing the multiple areas of stress in the dairy farming sector, the group recently invited Fetsch to give a seminar to its members titled “Tips for Coping in Tough Times.” At the beginning of 2009, it also started a hotline to provide legal, psychological and market counseling to its members.

But some argue that such piecemeal efforts aren’t enough — and that those in the agriculture sector deserve consistent and available mental health services.

“The numbers of appropriately-trained providers of psychology, psychiatry and substance abuse counseling in rural areas is half that of the same professionals in urban areas — and it is worsening,” Rosmann said.

Of the 3,075 counties in the United States, 55 percent have no practicing psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker, according to the Bureau of Primary Health Care.

It’s not just that Colorado farming and ranching towns need more mental health professionals, said Fetsch, arguing that rural towns also need more professionals who understand “agri-culture”: a world in which people consistently work long hours without high pay, are prone to high accident rates, experience numerous stressors outside their control (the price of diesel for example, or the weather), and have a deep connection to their land.

What we need to do,” he said, “is get more psychiatrists who are agro-sensitive.”

And those professionals need to be in normal places, he adds — like hospitals or agriculture extension offices. In small towns, he points out, there’s a stigma attached to having your car parked outside the psychologist’s office.

Kenna Clements, addictions counselor for Jackson County Mental Health, agrees. When she had a stand-alone office, she said, “they’d park at the bar and walk over before they’d park outside.” Now that she works out of a medical clinic, not only are people more comfortable parking outside, but she receives far more referrals from nearby physicians — meaning she is able to help people who might not walk into her office of their own accord.

But Clements says her clinic still struggles to bring in clients from nearby farms and ranches — and she doesn’t think it’s because services are either expensive or unavailable.

“It goes back to the whole rural way of living: Dust it off and get over it,” said Clements, who serves Colorado’s third least densely populated county. “It’s a lifestyle, and I don’t see that really changing much. They take care of their own things, and they do it their way.”

“Funding,” she said, “may not be the issue.”

But Rosmann thinks that funding is the issue, and that if the United States could develop mental health services that meet farmers’ needs, more might feel comfortable seeking help. He points out that 19,000 people called seven existing hotlines in the upper Midwest during the past 12 months and more than 3,500 obtained professional agricultural behavioral healthcare.

And Rosmann thinks the proposed Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is the way to develop those services. The network would build on his Sowing the Seeds of Hope program to create a national crisis hotline for rural workers. It would also mandate additional behavioral health services in rural regions. Colorado services would not be funded until the program’s second year.

However, while the network was authorized by the 2008 farm bill — and re-authorized by the 2010 versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate — it has not yet received funding.

Rosmann said that U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has indicated he will sponsor an effort to add funds to the Conference Committee bill when Congress reconvenes after the break. Rosmann is currently mounting a campaign to secure $2.5 million, one-half of the originally-requested amount.

“Not since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s have so many farm people, especially livestock and dairy producers and those impacted by weather disasters, become at risk; suicides and foreclosures are rapidly mounting,” Rosmann argued in a letter he is suggesting constituents use to lobby to their congressional representatives for funding.

But Shari Stucker, publicity coordinator for AgriWellness, acknowledges that trying to add new funding into a Conference Committee is risky. And those close to the issue expect Republicans — and possibly even Blue Dog Democrats who have heard an earful about the budget deficit over break — to question the new funding. Opposition could also come in the way of Congress members frustrated over the recession-year subsidies going to pork and dairy farmers.

AgriWellness is also preparing a request for Farm and Ranch Stress Network funding for the FY2011 Agriculture budget.

Katie Redding, based in Leadville, writes for The Colorado Independent; Lynda Waddington, based in Marion, Iowa, writes for The Iowa Independent.

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Katie Redding and Lynda Waddington

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