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Down on the farm

October 8, 2008
by David Raths
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When an economic crisis hit rural America in the 1980s, farming communities saw a dramatic increase in suicides, divorces, and substance use. Yet few behavioral health services were in place to help, says Michael Rosmann, PhD, executive director of AgriWellness, Inc., a Harlan, Iowa-based nonprofit focused on the agricultural community’s behavioral health.

“We hope we can have a network in place to help people in case that happens again,” adds Dr. Rosmann, who has been a leader in the effort to create the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). Dr. Rosmann says behavioral healthcare in rural areas particularly is challenging for several reasons, including the tendency of people in agriculture to put up a stalwart front and avoid anything that would show personal vulnerability. Also, there aren’t as many resources available as in other areas of the country. He points out that the number of providers per 1,000 people is half of what it is in urban areas.

“The USDA is starting to take care of farm people, not just crops and livestock. And I think it’s about time. They are farming’s greatest asset.”
—Michael Rosmann, PhD

FRSAN, planned as a nationwide expansion of an existing seven-state Web and hotline program called the Sowing the Seeds of Hope Network, was authorized by Congress in May’s Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, more commonly known as the “farm bill.”

With FRSAN, “When a farmer calls a number in their state, it will be answered by someone with an understanding of agricultural issues,” Dr. Rosmann says. “They can then connect the caller with other resources, whether legal, farming, or behavioral health professionals.”

FRSAN also would offer community education and provider training in all agricultural areas of the country. The legislation calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service to award grants to nonprofits in each state. “In some states the Extension may take up the task itself,” Dr. Rosmann says. “In others, there are pools of interested people who can seize the moment and take on this role.” Although the farm bill established FRSAN, backers now must seek funding for the program in appropriations bills from the new Congress. Dr. Rosmann says proponents still are determining the amount of funding to seek.

The Government Accountability Office is working on an estimate on the program’s cost. Despite the past few weeks’ gloomy financial news, Dr. Rosmann is optimistic Congress will fund FRSAN. When the Senate voted on it as an individual provision separate from the farm bill, it was strongly supported. “It came under scrutiny and passed by a wide margin,” he says. “That says a lot, I think.” Dr. Rosmann adds, “The USDA is starting to take care of farm people, not just crops and livestock. And I think it’s about time. They are farming’s greatest asset.”
David Raths is a freelance writer.