Farm to farm telehealth – can it help curb rural suicide rates?

Pew Research recently posted about telehealth in rural areas, specifically farms, using Minnesota as an example…

On most days, therapist Becky Kopp-Dunham counsels farmers and other clients across 10 North Dakota towns from her home office on a crop and cattle farm in Morehead, Minnesota.

With a reliable internet connection and videoconferencing service, Kopp-Dunham can inform and treat patients in rural and remote places. …

She and her colleagues call it “farm-to-farm therapy,” but it’s widely known among medical providers as telehealth delivery of mental health services. It’s just one of the many approaches states are taking to address mental health among rural and agricultural populations, as the need rises against the backdrop of a struggling farm economy.

This year at least seven states, including Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Oregon and Wisconsin, considered bills to boost local mental health authorities. Several, including Minnesota, New York and Wisconsin, focus on agricultural communities. Some are related to strengthening farm finances, but also intended to support mental health and well-being. It’s unclear to what extent state efforts will fulfill the need.

Rural areas have a triple whammy, there are fewer providers, greater distance between patients and the suicide rate is higher…

Rural residents experience mental disorders and drug addiction just as much as their urban counterparts, and their need for mental health services is similar. But rural suicide rates are greater than urban ones, and the gap has grown steadily since 1999.

And yet, rural people have less access to treatment sources. There’s a stark lack of providers in rural counties given the vast territory and small populations. Most areas with a shortage of mental health providers are partially or entirely rural, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And since 2010, 119 rural hospitals have closed.

There have been federal efforts to increase access to healthcare…

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the regional recipients of four grants totaling $1.9 million to provide stress assistance programs to people in agriculture.

The grantees will launch the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which was authorized in the 2018 farm bill signed by Trump last December. The funding will support more rural mental health research, programming and trained staffing.

The farm bill also increased the annual budget for the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program, from $75 million to $82 million, through fiscal 2023. The program helps rural communities use telecommunications to address challenges related to isolation and low population density.

And state efforts…

Meanwhile, Minnesota increased its annual appropriation to the state Department of Agriculture from $113,000 to $250,000 to add a second therapist focused on farmers and other statewide mental health counseling to farm families and business operators through the state college system.

In April, the University of Minnesota Extension formed a task force to provide educational programs and resources related to stress and mental health. Emily Wilmes, who leads the group, knows farmers who have committed suicide.

“I received a call I’ll never forget, Sept. 12, 2018, from a dairy farmer, a close friend,” Wilmes said. “He informed me quickly in our conversation that another dairy farmer had died by suicide the day before. The pain in his voice was something I’ll never forget. It turns out that dairy farmer was the father of a college classmate.”

In recognition of the financial concerns that can affect mental health, Minnesota also created a program that awards grants to eligible dairy farmers to encourage participation in the federal Dairy Margin Coverage program, financial protection for dairy producers when the margin between feed costs and milk prices falls below a certain amount, said state Rep. Jeanne Poppe, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. The North Star State lost about 10% of its dairy operations last year.

Besides competing priorities in tight budgets, another challenge for legislators is to know how to address the economic needs of various levels and types of agriculture — and when to act, said Poppe, who represents southeastern Minnesota.

This entry was posted in Healthcare, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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