University of Missouri Extension to help expand mental health resources in rural areas

Missouri’s rural counties lack mental health services despite growing financial stress and suicide rates with all of Missouri’s 99 rural counties facing a shortage of mental health professionals; 57 of them have none. The University of Missouri Extension hopes to change that through a multistate project to help farmers, ranchers, and farm families find affordable help close to home.  MU is part of a $28.7 million, three-year grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN).

FRSAN supports projects that provide stress assistance and suicide prevention services for farmers, ranchers, and others in agricultural occupations, says MU Extension health and safety specialist Karen Funkenbusch, who is MU’s principal investigator for the grant.

“Rural Missouri is facing a mental health crisis, fueled largely by growing economic stress and lack of affordable mental health services close to home,” says Funkenbusch, who also serves as state director of the Missouri AgrAbility Project, which assists the growing population of farmers and ranchers living with disabilities.

Trade policies and extreme weather have increased financial stress on the farm, she says. While the U.S. economy overall saw continued growth after the 2008-2009 recession, the farm sector has endured six periods of recession and rising numbers of bankruptcies.

Suicide rates among rural Missourians rose by 78% between 2003 and 2017, Funkenbusch says. Hospital emergency departments reported a 177% increase in visits for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation in the past decade.

“Critical resources are woefully inadequate and poorly matched to the needs of farmers and ranchers,” says Kathy Dothage, co-principal investigator for the grant. “Even when resources do exist, distance and affordability are issues since many self-employed rural families lack health insurance coverage.”

Funkenbusch says the culture of farming is steeped in self-reliance and independence, making it difficult for many farmers to seek and accept help.

MU Extension is well-suited to offer stress and suicide prevention training in rural areas and help citizens find needed resources, says MU Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Marshall Stewart.

MU Extension professionals in all of Missouri’s 114 counties and a large network of health care and agriculture groups will collaborate to bring services to underserved areas, Stewart says. In addition, MU Extension will share resources with agency partners and others.

As part of the project, MU Extension faculty will train to become certified instructors in Mental Health First Aid, QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), and Taking Care of You. They will provide information to farmers through online and printed resources and social media. They also will hold workshops geared toward farmers and ranchers. The goal is to reach 800 farmers by the end of 2021.

MU Extension will offer death, dying and bereavement workshops by state extension specialist Tashel Bordere, a nationally recognized researcher on loss and grief.

Early in the COVID pandemic, MU Extension and MU’s Psychological Services Clinic began offering Skills for Psychological Recovery, which provides up to five brief sessions by phone or videoconference to farm and ranch families experiencing financial and mental stress.

“These interventions help farmers and ranchers build resilience,” says Debora Bell, director of the clinic. Therapists offer coping skills to help with stress, uncertainty or social isolation. These skills include problem-solving, scheduling positive activities, managing thinking and reactions, and building connections.

Through the efforts of multiple partners, FRSAN will hold workshops and offer online psychology services through 2023.

MU Extension will share curricula with Missouri Farm Bureau, the Innovative Small Farmers Outreach Program at Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, Missouri Hospital Association, Missouri Department of Agriculture, USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, consumers, behavioral health service providers, policymakers and others.

MU Extension will work with extension partners at Iowa State, Purdue, Kansas State, Michigan State, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, University of Illinois, North Dakota State, Ohio State, University of Wisconsin, and South Dakota State. Other partners include the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, National AgrAbility and Progressive Agriculture Foundation.