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Mental health outreach to farmers expanded during pandemic

With traffic to the state's mental health phone line for farmers and rural populations lagging during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Agriculture decided to pivot.

The department created text and email lines for people who wanted to connect in other ways. Meg Moynihan, a senior advisor with the department, said she was pleased with the result.

"It really exceeded my expectation," she said, noting more traffic in the month after those alternatives were created.

Moynihan on Wednesday briefed the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee on the department's efforts to address rural mental health during the pandemic.

She said the department promoted the helpline heavily following the fall harvest, relied on its rural mental health specialists and farm advocates, and held web-based trainings to help meet farmers' needs.

The efforts were the latest by the state to increase the focus on the mental health of farmers, who are more likely than people in other occupations to take their own lives, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, the state has added a second rural mental health specialist and held online events to support professionals who work with farmers and rural workers.

Moynihan said she's heard from the two specialists that farmers aren't too worried about getting sick because of COVID-19 but that the uncertainty of the pandemic has taken its toll. She said the loss of community gathering places, such as churches and schools, has also been difficult, along with the financial stress caused by the pandemic.

She expects that a lot of families who lost hogs and poultry because of COVID-19-related shutdowns of processing facilities last spring will need counseling.

When asked by Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck) how the department stays in ongoing conversation with farmers who use the phone line, she said little information about the callers is known. The department "wants to respect the confidentiality of those reaching out," she said, noting that an outside agency takes those calls.

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