Lawmakers look to boost funding to address farmer stress, suicide

Theresia Gillie
Theresia Gillie is carrying on the business she and her husband, Keith, shared until he ended his life in 2017.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association

In Minnesota's far northwestern corner, a six-hour drive from the State Capitol office building where she sat on Thursday, Theresia Gillie is carrying on the business she and her husband, Keith, shared until he ended his life in 2017.

With help from neighbors, Gillie farms 950 acres, including land that has been in her husband's family since 1899. She's also a Kittson County commissioner. And there's one more role: Sharing her story and helping other farm families who are struggling.

"I feel it's my responsibility to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else," Gillie told House agriculture committee members on Thursday, fighting back tears. "Because it's been almost a year and 10 months for me, and it's still a struggle every day. But every day I've gotten up to get something accomplished."

Gillie and several others, all too familiar with the stress and mental health struggles Minnesota farmers have been facing, urged lawmakers to boost funding for a variety of efforts aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues and connecting people with the right resources. The committee's chair, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said she hopes to fast track a bill that would do exactly that — and not wait for the giant omnibus spending bills to slowly make their way through the Legislature.

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"Your story has hit us all," Poppe told Gillie. "Let's do what we can to make life better for many people."

Though the committee did not vote on any bills Thursday, lawmakers heard about existing efforts at supporting farmers' mental health and how they might be expanded. One of them: The state Department of Agriculture's network of farm advocates throughout the state, many of them farmers themselves, who can help people talk through problems ranging from financial difficulties to mental health crises.

Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said he's seen evidence the program is saving lives, recalling a conversation he had with a man in his 80s who approached him at a picnic last summer and told him he was worried his son was thinking about suicide.

"This was a Sunday afternoon, and I said, 'We have resources.' And I thought about the nearby advocate. We got his number and he called him that afternoon," Petersen said.

Later that day, the advocate, who lived about 10 miles away, was in touch with the concerned father, Petersen said. And today, Petersen said, the son is still farming.

Meg Moynihan, who leads the state ag department's mental health efforts, said there are many different factors behind families' struggles. Low commodity prices for the last several years is among them.

"That's layered on top of what I see as so many stresses and fractures and challenges that are just part of the nature of farming and the uncertainty," she said. "The weather, the insurance, school consolidation and now my kids have to ride an extra hour in the morning."

A tractor drives through a corn field.
A tractor moves through a partially harvested corn field in Murdock, Minn., Oct. 25, 2017. Advocates are urging lawmakers to boost funding for a variety of efforts aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues and connecting people with the right resources.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Moynihan is also a dairy farmer and has shared her own mental health struggles.

Besides the farmer advocates, Moynihan said the state ag department has focused on strengthening support networks in rural Minnesota and making sure a variety of community leaders know how to respond to mental health crises, including law enforcement, clergy, and representatives of farm organizations. And there's an awareness campaign running on a regional farm radio network that educates people about the signs of stress and connects them with resources.

Even simple brochures about mental health and how to get help can be a good first step, said Bruce Miller, membership and outreach director for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

"Whenever we go to meetings, we put these on the table," Miller told lawmakers, holding up a brochure. "They always get picked up, especially if you're not watching."

The stigma around mental health problems is still very real in farm country, agreed Ted Matthews, a veteran mental health care provider who has worked with the state to assist farmers whenever and wherever they need it.

"Farmers, especially, are uncomfortable with sharing that with the outside community. They are judged," he said.

One lawmaker, noticing Matthews' gray beard and extensive experience, asked if he was thinking of retirement.

Ted Matthews is a mental health practitioner who works with farmers.
Ted Matthews, a mental health practitioner who works with farmers, testified in front of a legislative committee.
Courtesy of Ted Matthews

"Ten years ago I was going to retire, and then eight years ago and then six years ago," he said, adding he planned to stay at least two more and train as many people as he can to respond to farmers in crisis.

"By us all pulling together for a common cause, I think we can help a lot of farmers who are still in a lot of stress," Matthews said.

Getting help: Resources for farmers struggling with financial and mental health challenges

Minnesota Farm Advocates, a network of farmers and others who can talk through financial and mental health challenges, run by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline, where people can call 833-600-2670 any time — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to get help with a range of problems.

Several programs help farmers facing financial and legal difficulties, including Farmers Legal Action Group and financial analysts with University of Minnesota Extension.