Bipartisan Legislation Will Assist Farmers and Rural Communities Tackle Mental Health Issues

October 24, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan trio of House members are fighting to increase mental health care options to address the growing rate of suicide in rural America.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Reps. John Katko, R-N.Y., and Angie Craig, D-Minn., in introducing the Seeding Rural Resilience Act.

Among other things, the bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide voluntary stress management training to Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and National Resources Conservation Service employees.

These employees are constantly in direct contact with members of the ag community, and will be able to direct producers in need to appropriate mental health services.

In addition, the bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture to work with state and local government, and the private sector to collaborate and determine best practices for responding to mental stress in the farm and ranch communities.

Lastly, it allocates $3 million for the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to create a public service announcement to increase awareness of farm and ranch stress and destigmatize mental health care in rural communities.

The companion bill in the Senate is sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates grew in nearly all 50 states, and the suicide rate in rural communities is 45 percent higher than the rate in urban areas.

Brindisi noted that the suicide rate in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which he represents, is above the state average.

“A career in agriculture is a difficult but rewarding life,” Brindisi said. “Our Upstate farmers help feed the world, but unfortunately, many bear incredible burdens. Whether it’s low prices, a trade war, or Mother Nature, much of a farmer’s bottom line is out of their control, and that uncertainty can add to daily stresses. Our bill will help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health in our rural communities and ensure all farmers have better access to mental health care.”

Rep. Katko noted that in many communities, including his Central New York district, farms are passed from generation to generation.

Sadly, he said, “facing isolation and stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare, farmers often fail to seek out care.” 

“We must ensure these families in our region have access to the mental health resources that they need. As co-chair of the bipartisan Mental Health Caucus, I have prioritized improving access to mental healthcare for all Americans – and I am proud now to join Representatives Brindisi and Craig in introducing The Seeding Rural Resilience Act, bipartisan legislation that aims to improve mental healthcare for farming families by implementing suicide prevention training programs and promoting awareness of mental illness in rural areas.” 

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., also a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said she’s talked with farmers whose families have farmed on the same land for generations, and heard them describe the stress inflicted by the current farm crisis.

“Earlier this year I held a roundtable focused on rural mental health in Wabasha, I’ve also walked with farmers on their land as they describe the sense of isolation that can set in with uncertain markets and low commodity prices,” she said. “I understand that right now we must expand mental health resources to support Minnesota farmers, and I’m proud to expand resources that meet farmers where they live.”

Brindisi’s bill is already being praised by Upstate New York farmers and advocates.

“We appreciate Congressman Brindisi recognizing the struggle that some NY farmers are currently experiencing,” said Upstate New York farmer Bret Bossard. “Mental health awareness is a positive step in the right direction towards bringing awareness to this growing problem.”

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said he’s happy to support the lawmakers’ efforts to increase both mental health awareness in the farming community and resources available to assist farmers facing high levels of stress.

“Times remain tough for many farmers, and it is imperative that agency staff, who are regularly meeting with farmers, know how to identify people who may be struggling and direct them to appropriate help,” Fisher said. “In addition, efforts to educate rural communities on mental health issues can provide an opportunity to open up a dialogue and reduce the stigma often surrounding it. This support could not only save a farm, it could save a life.”

The bill is also supported by the American Dairy Coalition, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Psychological Association, Farm Aid, Female Farmer Project, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Barley Growers Association, National Corn Growers’ Association, National Family Farm Coalition, National Farmers’ Union, National Sunflower Association, National Young Farmers Coalition, Rural & Agricultural Council of America, U.S. Canola Association, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, and the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Association.

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