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STRESS Act Introduced to Address Farmer Suicide

A bipartisan group of 10 farm state representatives introduced the Stemming the Tide of Rural Economic Stress and Suicide (STRESS) Act mid-March for inclusion in the next farm bill. The STRESS Act (H.R. 5259) aims to bring farmers, ranchers, and agriculture workers greater access to mental health treatment.

The bill amends the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 to reauthorize the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). FRSAN was developed to give states resources to help farmers and ranchers, but it did not receive funding before it lapsed.

According to a statement relased by Representative David Young’s (R-IA) office, the new FRSAN will "provide free, confidential mental health services to agriculture workers, including a 24/7 crisis line, ongoing therapy, support groups, and other counseling services."

A program called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH), which expired in 2014, will be used as a model for the FRSAN. Young's office reported SSOH answered over 500,000 calls from farmers, trained 10,000 rural mental health professionals, and provided help to more than 100,000 families over the course of its existence.

Farmers Have Higher Suicide Risk

“Due to the nature of their work and the lack of mental health treatment available, these individuals suffer from higher rates of depression and suicide,” says a press statement from Young’s office.

A report examining suicide rates by occupational group published in July 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says, “Persons working in the farming, fishing, and forestry group had the highest rate of suicide overall.”

On average, 84.5 people per 100,000 in the industry took their own life. Males in the farming, fishing, and forestry category committed suicide, at a higher rate of 90.5 deaths per 100,000 population.

“Occupational groups with higher suicide rates might be at risk for a number of reasons, including job-related isolation and demands, stressful work environments, and work-home imbalance, as well as socioeconomic inequities, including lower income, lower education level, and lack of access to health services,” the CDC report says. “Previous research suggests that farmers’ chronic exposure to pesticides might affect the neurologic system and contribute to depressive symptoms. Other factors that might contribute to suicide among farmers include social isolation, potential for financial losses, barriers to and unwillingness to seek mental health services (which might be limited in rural areas), and access to lethal means.”

The CDC report recommended, “Prevention strategies that enhance social support, community connectedness, access to preventive services, and reduction of stigma and barriers to help-seeking.”

“Farmers in Minnesota and across America are in the midst of a suicide crisis,” said Representative Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican. “Those who work in agriculture face uniquely high-stress challenges ranging from social isolation to strong dependence on factors outside of their control. Combined with the incredible lack of mental health treatment available, our farmers have been left to suffer alone in the shadows without the help and care they need and deserve. Addressing the shortage of services available with the STRESS Act is a good first step to turn the tide on this crisis. I am hopeful this bill will be included in the upcoming farm bill to ensure farmers get care before crisis and am grateful to the House Agricultural Committee for its support of this effort thus far.” 

Young echoed his colleague, “Our farmers and folks working in agriculture feed and sustain the world, and it’s only right we take steps to support them if they’re experiencing a crisis. Farmers face tough times and take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation, so I am proud to support this bill to help Iowans working in agriculture get access to the help and assistance they need.”

"Commodity prices are low. Inputs and equipment are expensive. Coupled with fears of retaliation against agriculture from the possibility of a trade war, many farmers are on edge. Our farm families are resilient, but they face mounting pressure, which can have a significant impact on their emotions and mental health," said a statement released by Young's office on March 26.

Farmers Have Less Access to Help

“For those in rural areas seeking mental health services, they face two giant obstacles: availability and accessibility. In 55% of all American counties, most of which are rural, there is not a single psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) could help support agriculture workers and their families in rural communities by providing easily obtainable resources for mental health services,” said the National Rural Health Association.

National Farmers Union expressed similar concerns in a press statement. "Unfortunately, many family farmers and ranchers lack access to the support they need in times of extreme duress. FRSAN would fund partnerships to train farm advocates, establish help lines, and provide outreach and support services. NFU has long advocated for these resources, and we applaud the efforts of Representatives Emmer and O’Halleran to ensure family farmers get the support they need to stay healthy and afloat through these tough times."

What's Next

In an interview a Young staffer emphasized the congressman's stance. “Mental health is part of health,” said the staffer. “The congressman is particularly passionate about this issue. It’s something we can prevent. Telling them they matter is important.”

While it will likely be April before progress will be made to include the STRESS Act in the farm bill, Young's office expressed his commitment saying Young is going to pursue all avenues, even as a stand-alone bill, if necessary.

Cosponsors of the bill also include Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), Rick Nolan (D-MN), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), John Katko (R-NY), John Faso (R-NY), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME).

Learn More

The full text of the STRESS Act is available here.

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