More help could be on the way soon in efforts to respond to rural stress — a catchall term for the many pressures that farmers and ranchers have been facing and that have, too often, re­­sulted in tragic outcomes for many farm families. 

That help comes in the form of an amendment recently added to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is making its way through the United States Senate. Co-sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the bipartisan Seeding Rural Resilience Act would create three initiatives to promote mental wellness and mental health awareness in rural America.

 The staff of USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service has more contact with farmers and ranchers than perhaps anyone else except for their close friends and family. Those contacts are a critical opportunity to identify farmers and ranchers who need help. The Seeding Rural Resilience Act will implement a voluntary, farmer-facing training program across those USDA agencies, so that staff are more equipped and confident to have conversations with farmers and ranchers about how they’re doing emotionally and mentally. They’ll also be more aware of the mental health and suicide prevention resources that are available.

Overcoming the stigma

A big challenge in the effort to address farmers’ mental health is the stigma that often surrounds the issue. The thing that could help the most — talking about how they’re feeling — could be the most difficult. I understand personally the healing that can come from simply talking about how you feel. 

Following my wife’s passing in January after a long fight against cancer, I had so much grief bottled up inside me. When I finally opened up and talked about how I was feeling, it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. The truth is sharing what you’re going through is a sign of strength, not weakness, because you have the courage to put yourself out there and get the help you need, and possibly even help others by showing it’s OK to talk about it. 

That’s why I’m especially pleased that the Seeding Rural Resilience Act will form a partnership between the USDA and the Health and Human Services Department to create a public service announcement aimed at increasing public awareness of farm and ranch stress and destigmatizing mental health care in rural communities.

There are many nongovernmental organizations and state and local governments that are ahead of the curve in responding to rural stress. Rather than reinvent the wheels they already have rolling, federal agencies can work with them to support the good work they’re doing and learn how to replicate their success. 

Responding to stress

Another great part of the Seeding Rural Resilience Act is a directive that the USDA collaborate with state and local governments and nongovernmental stakeholders to determine best practices for responding to farm and ranch mental stress.

With the Seeding Rural Resilience Act added to the National Defense Authorization Act, its chances of passing are very good, but we don’t take anything for granted. 

As Congress returns from re­­cess this week, let’s urge our senators to support the legislation. And let’s also turn our attention to the House of Representatives and urge members of Congress in that chamber to add it to the Defense Authorization Act there.

The latest challenge

The recent pandemic is only the latest challenge farmers and ranchers have faced. Challenging weather, destructive pests, trade disputes, labor shortages and market volatility over the past few years have put tremendous pressure on America’s food producers. 

I’m proud of Farm Bureau’s work, through training, policy advocacy, communication and coordination across state Farm Bureau organizations, to respond to this challenge for farm and ranch families and communities. You can read about the work we’re doing on our Farm State of Mind web page. We will continue to build on those efforts in the weeks and months to come.

Duvall is a Georgia farmer and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.