Suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states, including Minnesota, was nearly five times higher in comparison to the general population. Rep. Swedzinski's bill is hoping to change that.

Bills would assist farmers with mental health issues

In conjunction with the increasing mental health issues among farmers, Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) authored a bill which would provide $140,000 to support counseling for farmers.

Swedzinski, Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley) and Jean Poppe (D-Austin) all successfully presented bills related to farmers’ mental health last Tuesday.

All three bills in a bipartisan series of proposals related to mental health for farm families remain in the mix for passage this legislative session after receiving hearings in the House Agriculture finance Committee at the State Capitol.

“Life happens and people who are facing immediate mental health needs should not be forced to wait weeks or months to visit a doctor because of an unexpected turn of events,” Swedzinski explained about his bill.

Committee Chairman Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) held over all three measures for possible inclusion into a larger package of agricultural-related bills later this season.

“Mental health and the reasons for it don’t go away because of a snow storm, so what we want to do is to give people the green light to look elsewhere to make up that appointment if timelines in rescheduling with the initial provider proves to be a problem,” Swedzinski said.

A recent study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that those people working in agriculture (farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers and lumber harvesters) have a higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states, including Minnesota, was nearly five times higher in comparison to the general population.

Upon further studies, it was also reported that the suicide rate for agricultural workers was more than double that of military veterans.

Even more alarming is the fact that these numbers are likely higher since the studies did not include several major agricultural states, including Iowa. Mental health experts also indicated that the numbers are also underestimated as many farmers disguise suicides as farm-related accidents.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is doing its part to help, recently offering a free and confidential service called Farm and Rural Helpline with counselors available 24/7 for farmers and rural residents under stress.

That number is 833-600-2670. “We don’t want farmers to think they need to have a crisis to ask for help,” MDA State Programs Administrator Principal Meg Moynihan said in a press release.

“We want farmers to call who are beginning to experience that anxiety. Maybe they can’t sleep, so we can begin these conversations before it becomes serious.”

Concerns that factor into the agriculture industry stress and fears include those things that are out of a farmer’s control such as low commodity prices and the weather.

Since 2013, net farm income for U.S. farmers has declined 50 percent and farmers feel the stress of feeling that if they can’t sell, they won’t be able to pay for the following season’s crop.

The CDC study suggested that possible causes for a high suicide rate among farmers included social isolation, potential for financial losses, and limited mental health services in rural areas.

Farmers who call the toll-free number will be able to speak to a counselor who is trained to ask questions and discuss the unique stresses often seen in agriculture.

“Sometimes there are topics that are tough to discuss with even your spouse,” Moynihan said in the press release.

“So we want to provide a resource that allows farmers to get things off their chest and discuss concerns.”

Swedzinski, Backer and Poppe are hoping the bills they present will be passed to allow further assistance for farmers with mental health issues.

Besides Minnesota, six other Midwestern states currently provide behavioral health services to farmers with crisis hotlines, including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski

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