State program seeks to address mental health needs of farmers
With Mental Health Awareness Month in May coinciding with the spring planting season, the Illinois Department of Agriculture is highlighting an initiative aimed at helping farmers cope with stress and other related issues.
The Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI) that connects farmers and rural residents to access mental health services will continue to operate in all 102 Illinois counties after securing $500,000 in funding during this year’s state legislative session.
Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello said the program can now be reached through email, text message and through a FFRI website, in addition to the original 1-833-FARM-SOS hotline.
“It shouldn't be this way, but sometimes seeking mental health help has a stigma,” Costello said Tuesday during a news conference at the UnityPoint Health atrium in Peoria. “This particular way of doing it through the Farm Family Resource Initiative is something that can be done anonymously ...by farmers and people in rural communities.”
Operated through the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development, FFRI helps farm families identify mental health needs and available services and puts them in contact with service providers and other resources.
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said it’s good to see more attention being directed to the mental health needs of farming families in response to what he sees as a crisis.
“Both my grandfathers were farmers, and so I know the stress that they’d go through every year: It's either too hot, or it's too cool. It's either too wet or it's too dry. I think with climate change, we see that really exaggerated every year,” said Koehler, noting that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Illinois and the entire country.
“We've long recognized, I think, in the legislature that mental health, behavioral health issues are something that we have not adequately addressed. We talk about health care, but we usually leave out that part about mental health care. This is now going to be our best effort to date of really putting the resources where they belong, and that is to address mental health issues as it relates to agriculture.”
Dave Mingus, a veteran mental health clinician at UnityPoint Health’s UnityPlace, pointed out that farmers have a suicide rate that’s five times greater than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said stressors such as unpredictable weather conditions, fluctuating market prices and uncertain finances, isolation, and even equipment malfunctions can result in farmers experiencing depression or anxiety.
“I think with the mental health in the farm community, there's an attitude that, ‘We can do it on our own and we don't need help from anybody else, because we were brought up this way,’” said Mingus. “So what we're saying is, culturally speaking, we have to provide programs that meet those traditions and those expectations a little differently than maybe what we might do in the clinical setting.”
The FFRI started as a six-county pilot program in 2019 and expanded statewide in 2021 with a grant from the USDA. While that grant runs out in August, the added state funding will keep the program running.
“Our website (siumed.org/farm) has pulled together all kinds of resources and initiatives,” said program director Karen Stallman, adding participation numbers have steadily increased. “We have a resource page, an electronic resource guide. We have webinars to help farmers dealing with stress. We do a monthly blog. So we pull together all kinds of information on our website.
“We're offering different professional development opportunities for those — especially in ag industry settings — that want to learn a little bit more about how to identify when a farmer is struggling. We do have farmers now accessing the free counseling sessions and, again, that's available for free only because of the funding.”
Costello said his agency has gotten “an extremely positive response” from farmers who have participated in the initiative.
“Being able to do this anonymously, having all of the outlets — from the hotline, the email, text — honestly, it's just been a godsend. I do really believe this program has taken off to a point to where I don't believe we'll ever go backwards, and it's been because the legislature took this seriously and takes mental health very seriously.”