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Rural safety net disappearing in wake of funding denial
For the past several years some U.S. farmers have been lucky enough to live in a state where help with financial or emotional issues was only a phone call away, but it seems their luck is about to change.
“There are no further funds to continue our operations, and the existence of the helpline is very, very tenuous at this point,” said Charlie Griffin, project director of the Kansas Rural Family Helpline.
The few hotlines sprinkled throughout the nation were hopeful that the services they provided, especially in terms of behavioral health, had finally been given a place of prominence within the fabric of American agriculture when language in the 2008 Farm Bill established a national program. Yet, during the appropriations process following passage of the Farm Bill, Congress failed to provide any funding for the new program it had created.
The Kansas program, which is one of seven in the Midwest under the umbrella of Iowa-based AgriWellness, offers a statewide hotline staffed by individuals who have specific experience and/or training to help rural residents and agricultural producers through a wide-array of stressful situations. Callers, according to Griffin, are often people who have been successfully treading water until one event or incident results in a breakdown of their ability to continue. No matter what caused the upheaval, however, hotline staff members work to connect the callers to resources that they need.
“It is important to understand that behavioral health problems for people in agriculture come wrapped up with other life problems,” Griffin explained. “Most of the time those are financial programs — not always, but much of the time. In many cases there is an agricultural operation that is struggling, and people trying to figure out how to manage debt loads, loan payments or medical expenses. That is a very typical call for us.”
Hotline staff members, unlike emergency response teams that arrive following disasters, are available 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Many have built personal and trusting relationships with the rural communities and residents they serve.
“That’s a key thing,” said Fran Lyon-Dugin, director of finance and business development at the Minnesota-based Crisis Connection. “In rural America, it is all about relationships — who you know and who you feel comfortable with and who you trust. There is already such a big stigma around mental illness. So, taking away the people that have forged these relationships can be really devastating. When the network or hotline goes away, so do the faces and voices that you trust.”
What compounds the problem is that the hotlines are experiencing increased activity for a wide variety of reasons ranging from low milk prices being paid to dairy producers to colder-than-expected weather conditions that may require crop farmers to replant.
“We received about 10,000 calls per year — and about 20 percent of those were suicide-related,” said Susan Helgeland, executive director of Mental Health Association in North Dakota. “Another important thing, at least in North Dakota, is that we are servicing members of the military who are returning to rural areas from Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a national hotline through the Veterans’ Department, but our number, 2-1-1, is much easier to remember in a time of crisis, and our workers were specifically trained to hone in on the unique needs of rural populations.”
The North Dakota hotline, which has been in existence since 1969, nearly became the first victim of the funding crisis. Helgeland’s agency could no longer afford to operate it and was considering closing it. Another agency, First Link, which had been serving a much smaller area, agreed to keep the statewide hotline active — but there are no guarantees past 2010, unless the agency can obtain sustainable funding.
Barring a funding miracle, it now appears extremely likely that the Kansas program will be the first to close its doors. Griffin reports that the hotline currently receives between two and four calls each day. How rural Kansas residents will connect with resources if that happens remains to be seen.
“We often get calls from people who say, ‘I just don’t know where to turn.’ We help them search — with a lot of knowledge and experience about how to target that search — for the resources they most need that day,” Griffin explained. “Some people can do that type of searching on their own, but others aren’t too good at it. Often, in the midst of a crisis, thinking isn’t as clear and time is limited. Also, I don’t know many groups that work with the type of broad understanding of agricultural needs and agricultural resources that we’ve developed here over the years.”
Helgeland minces few words when she describes what will happen to rural residents if the hotlines close: “People will die. That is the bottom line — people will die. They will not get that two-in-the-morning chance to call someone and say that they are thinking about committing suicide. There won’t be an intervention.”
Funding crisis and rural deaths could have been prevented
Congress authorized, but did not fund, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network as a part of the 2008 Farm Bill. The new line item calls for the creation of a national crisis hotline for rural workers and additional behavioral health services in geographically rural regions. While some states, like Iowa, have existing statewide hotlines and some capacity to provide behavioral health services to rural residents, others currently have none.
After the program was authorized, Pres. Barack Obama recommended that it initially be given a $5 million appropriation by Congress — less than .1 percent of the nearly $24 billion that was eventually appropriated by the U.S. Senate. Neither the U.S. House or Senate, however, approved any funding for the new program.
“I worked to try to obtain the funding,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “The Agriculture Appropriations Committee, Sen. [Herb] Kohl [a Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the committee] and others decided not to fund it. I’ve submitted the request again, but I can’t make any guarantees.”
A spokeswoman in Kohl’s office told The Iowa Independent Wednesday that funding for the program remained under consideration, but could not provide a timeline of when the chairman expected to announce a draft appropriations bill to the committee. Harkin has pledged to continue to seek funding for the program as a part of fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill, but no other member of the U.S. Senate subcommittee tasked with crafting the bill — including ranking member Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas — answered The Iowa Independent’s query about the program.
Even if Congress now funds the program, however, it will likely be too late to save the Kansas and North Dakota hotlines. It is quite possible that, absent a nearly immediate infusion of taxpayer or private funding, more of the programs under the AgriWellness umbrella will also face closing.
“The entire AgriWellness coalition is in dire need of funding,” said Lyon-Dugin.
While each state has its own specific partnerships and concerns, all have been hard hit by both a lack of taxpayer funds from the state and federal levels and economically-strapped nonprofits.
“It’s obvious that funding sources at the federal level are very tight,” Griffin said. “The state is not in a position, due to their own fiscal concerns, to bring in or initiate new programs. All state-funding programs are under the gun at this time. From what I’ve seen in this state — and I’m guessing it is the same throughout the nation — nonprofits are also strapped. Tax-base funded programs as well as nonprofit, community-based programs are all struggling to keep up with needs during a time of reduced income.”
The costs associated with running a statewide hotline are not negligible, nor are they excessively absorbent. Staff must be paid and trained. Many go through rigorous accreditation programs such as those offered by the American Association of Suicidology or the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. Of course, there are utility and phone expenses as well. Griffin estimates that the Kansas program requires $200,000 each fiscal year.
“We are the safety net. Rural suicides, according to some statistics, happen at more than twice the rate of urban suicides,” said Lyon-Dugin. “If there is no one for those in need to call … well, I guess there are local or county health departments or emergency rooms, but, as we know, those are overwhelmed as well. It is really difficult to identify who people would go to if we weren’t here.”
Peter Scheffert leads the Ag Development & Financial Assistance Division at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which partners with Crisis Connection as a part of the Minnesota Farmer Assistance Network.
“Farmers are wonderful people,” Scheffert said. “One of their strengths is that they are strong, independent people, and one of their weaknesses is that they are strong, independent people. When they do need help, they aren’t as apt to go out and look for it or take advantage of it either. … There is a strong need for [this service]. In agriculture, we often focus on facts and figures or numbers and production, and we haven’t done as well in dealing with the people-side of it, and especially in terms of mental health needs.”
Getting the authorization within the 2008 Farm Bill was significant, and no one involved in providing such services will downplay the importance of just having federal officials take note of these needs within rural America. All, however, are just as quick to point to remaining, unfinished business before Congress.
“Finally there has been recognition within the Farm Bill that this is a need, but we have to do more than just recognize,” Helgeland said. “We need to fund it