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Farmer-Senators Address Rising Rural Suicides

Grassley and Tester introduce a bill to help rural America deal with suicides.

The only farmers currently serving in the U.S. Senate, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Jon Tester (D-MT), have introduced a bill to help rural America deal with suicides that seem to be increasing as the agricultural economy stagnates.

“Farmers are increasingly feeling the pain of sinking commodity prices, devastating natural disasters, and ongoing trade disruptions. That, coupled with the largely solitary nature of farming, has led more and more family farmers to desperation and feelings of hopelessness. This should not be the case. This bill continues important efforts to raise awareness about this issue and provide the assistance necessary to encourage farmers and their families during difficult times,” Grassley said in a statement.

“Rural America has a crisis on its hands – I see it in my community, and I see it in the small communities across Montana. Lack of resources, stalled crop prices, isolation, and the stigma against receiving mental health care have caused more and more farmers to take their own lives. This bill is no silver bullet, but it puts us on track towards giving our farmers the resources they need so they can keep doing what they do best – feeding the world,” Tester said.

Seeding Rural Resilience Act

The Senators’ Seeding Rural Resilience Act aims to curb growing rates of suicide in rural America by implementing a voluntary stress management training program to Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and National Resources Conservation Service employees.

The act also provides the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture with $3 million to create a Public Service Announcement campaign bringing awareness to the issue.

Finally, it directs the Secretary of Agriculture to work with state, local, and nongovernmental stakeholders to determine best practices for responding to farm and ranch mental stress.

Phones are ringing in Nebraska

The need for help is clearly even bigger than this legislation.

At the office of the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline in Bancroft, Nebraska, the phones are ringing.

“Calls are definitely up for financial distress, debt collection, bankruptcies and anything along those lines,” says Michelle Soll, a respondent for the hotline.

“We talk to probably three new phone callers a day on just financial distress,” says Soll, who is also the farm and ranch project director of Legal Aid of Nebraska. Low prices and damage from flooding are contributing to demand for the services, she said.

A smaller but significant number of farmers and ranchers seek mental health crisis counseling from the Nebraska Counseling, Outreach and Mental Health Therapy Project.

“We enroll probably 30 to 40 new people a month in that program,” she says. “Really all of the services are in demand right now.”

Soll isn’t certain exactly how much demand is up because funding for those services has been cut over the past two years. The organization used to provide 10 vouchers for free counseling. Now they’re able to give out five.

The hotline gets financial support from a long list of public and private sources, including Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, the state’s departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, and Legal Aid.

Soll says that she welcomes the new legislation sponsored by Grassley and Tester.

“I’m for anything that can get some services back directly to our farmers and ranchers,” she says.

Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK, or 1-800-273-8255.

The number for the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline is 1-800-464-0258.

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