Minnesota Launches Rural Helpline

Meg Moynihan sat in her farmhouse, looking out at the rain.

Her dairy farm did not need the precipitation Friday, Oct. 6, leaving her feeling a bit down.

The day illustrated that as a farmer herself, Moynihan understands about the need for a new state program she just planted at the Minnesota Agriculture Department: Farm and Rural Helpline.

The line is a new service, replacing an earlier farm crisis line, that allows rural Minnesotans to call (833) 600-2670 to deal with all sorts of problems, even if they do not rise to crisis level, Moynihan said.

“Farmers love to farm, but it is an extremely challenging profession,” she said on the dreary Friday.

They have no control over costs such as for implements, seed and fertilizer. Others control how much they are paid for crops, milk and livestock.

In the fall, “you are watching the clock for frost and watching the skies for rain. It can be a very stressful time.”

In the spring, “you realize you are borrowing a lot.”

So it is no surprise that mental health issues are big in rural areas. The helpline will be answered by trained counselors who can help immediately and can refer rural Minnesotans to other resources, such as finance experts.
“I know that sometimes it helps to talk to someone about problems that can seem insurmountable,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who farmed for 24 years. “There is always help available around the corner.”

The commissioner said that In the 1980s, when farmers faced major crisis, he once was reduced to tears when talking to a banker. He said he understands financial stress.

The stress on farmers is so high that many reports say they face the highest suicide rate of any profession, perhaps twice that of any other.

And even though today’s farm finance woes are not as bad as during the 1980s crisis, most indicators show suicide rates are headed up.

A recent University of Iowa study showed that while financial issues remain a prime concern, farmers’ mental health also is affected by things such as the inability to get health insurance, loneliness and physical pain from the work they do.

Study co-author Corinne Peek-Asa said farm culture encourages farmers with physical or psychological problems to “just suck it up.”

That is not a good health tactic, and Moynihan said a call to the helpline can prevent an issue from becoming a crisis.

The helpline will be available 24 hours a day. The state Agriculture Department is paying Minnesota company Canvas Health to operate the telephone service; it already handles other crisis services, including the National Suicide Prevention LIfeline.

Moynihan said callers can be anonymous or may give counselors their telephone numbers for return calls. Counselors can refer callers to other resources that could provide help.

The state pays $35,000 a year for the service, but no information about callers will be passed on to the department.

“It could pay for itself in one call,” said Moynihan, who said she does not know how many calls to expect.

The helpline is aimed at people on farms and others connected to agriculture. Most counties have their own mental health hotlines and the national suicide hotline is (800) 273-8255. Also, Minnesotans may text “life” to 61222 to get 24-hour assistance.

The free and confidential line is open not only  to people facing problems themselves, but can take calls from friends and family of rural residents who appear to be troubled.

Moynihan also is leading an effort that starts next year to train people who deal with farmers — such as bankers, veterinarians, clergy and nurses — about how to spot mental health problems.

While she said the training, to be at six sites around the state, will not produce counselors, it will allow people to find help when they “notice something that doesn’t seem quite right.”