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Grassley bill aims to curb suicides among farmers

Experts say bill is a beginning, but more is needed

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The suicide rate in rural America is 45 percent higher than in urban settings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, and among those who face a higher vulnerability to suicide are farmers.

The CDC said the suicide rate for farmers and ranchers was roughly 32 out of every 100,000 people in 2015 — and that does not count women and uses data from only 17 states. The health agency said more work is needed to gain a better understanding of the scope of the problem.

That’s why Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced the Seeding Rural Resilience Act — a bill that aims to curb rural suicides.

The bill would implement a voluntary stress-management training program in the agriculture industry and provide $3 million to create a public service announcement campaign.

Roughly 91 percent of farmers and farmworkers have financial issues that affect their mental health, and 87 percent are afraid they’ll lose their farms, according to a May poll commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation. Yet fewer than 20 percent of rural adults know how to access a therapist or counselor in their communities, the survey found.

Last year, Farm Aid reported a 30 percent increase in calls to its helpline and in August it partnered with the American Psychological Association to develop resources for stress and behavioral health.

The Seeding Rural Resilience Act would expand on the $10 million authorized last year for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to better address mental health and stress stemming from the farm economy.

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A corn and soybean farmer, Grassley said he believes he has a unique understanding of the struggles farmers face.

“I started farming when dad died in 1960, and I think I can say I’ve been through some difficult times like that myself,” he said. “So the bill that I’ve introduced with Sen. Tester is really meant to prepare people to handle the stressors they might face and preempt the decision to end their life. And we’re a bigger agricultural state, so you understand why this bill is a priority for me.”

Farmers face long hours, unpredictable weather and yields, isolation and stress, Grassley said. And because they are living in rural communities, they likely lack certain resources, such as a nearby medical professionals for physical and mental needs.

That’s why he and Tester included a training component in the proposed legislation.

The bill calls for the Secretary of Agriculture to “establish a voluntary program to train employees of the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the management of stress experienced by farmers and ranchers, including the detection of stress and suicide prevention.”

Employees of these agencies ”deal with farmers on a regular basis, so we want in-service training so they can recognize the signs that farmers under stress, and, if they’re under stress and they think it’s kind of getting dangerous, they can alert people to help,” Grassley said.

For Dr. Mike Rosmann, a fourth-generation Harlan farmer and psychologist who works specifically with agricultural communities, the act is a good start but not enough in the long run.

“We’ve been gearing up to provide services for a while now,” he said. “And that’s a problem. We need to finish with the gearing up part and actually move on to providing the service because farmers are struggling now. So, we need actual services like hotlines and helplines and affordable counseling or free counseling to financially pressed farmers, and we need those services now.”

Every day, Rosmann said, he receives calls and emails from farmers who are struggling.

“It’s really difficult, and every circumstance a little different for each individual farmer,” he said. “We’re seeing farmers whose crops have been damaged by flooding or sudden weather changes. Some farmers couldn’t even get in to plant their land because of the flooding. The late thaw, and now the early freeze, all of those things are stressors for farmers because they can affect not only their ability to plant their crops, but their yields as well.”

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Rosmann recalled a farmer he spoke with last spring whose land was in a flood plain along the Missouri River. When the river rose and the levee broke, Rosmann said, the man’s land was completely flooded. Water rose about halfway up his grain bins.

“Those grain bins were supposed to help him get by,” Rosmann said. “He thought he was going to sell that grain to service his loans, but he couldn’t.”

Rosmann said the man first thought his crop insurance would cover the damage, but it only covered the grain up until it went into the bins.

“Then he thought maybe his homeowner’s insurance policy would cover it, but they said it was a flooding related event and he needed to have flood insurance. So then he went to (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and FEMA said, you’re in a flood plain, and you needed flood insurance. So he was stuck. About the only thing he could do was to sell off some of the assets he had in order to meet his loan obligations. But it was a terribly stressful circumstance. We’re in such an unpredictable environment right now that about the only things farmers can control are their own behaviors.”

And, Rosmann said, that’s what makes important the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which aims to establish a network that connects those in the agricultural community to stress assistance programs, and now this bill by Grassley and Tester.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “There are not enough behavioral health professionals who understand agriculture communities and the unique stressors they face. So, we need a lot of resources to better train physicians and mental health professionals so they can better help farmers address their unique problems.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it’s working to set up the first federally funded program to help farmers in distress, which will include support groups, mental health training, and referrals to clinical services that will be provided by four regional centers in the nation.

The Seeding Rural Resilience Act has received praise by farming and mental health organizations across the country, including the American Psychological Association, the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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To get help

If you need mental health assistance, or know someone who does, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Call: 1-800-273-8255

Visit, including online chat: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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