Weekly Columns

According to findings from a Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN poll in October 2022, 90 percent of adults think there is a mental health crisis in the United States. That makes investing in mental health care more important than ever. 

In rural America, the challenge is greater. According to the National Rural Health Association, the rate of suicide among farmers is three and a half times higher than among the general population. A Morning Consult poll found that during 2021, 61 percent of farmers and farm workers and 52 percent of rural adults reported experiencing more stress and mental health challenges compared to the previous year. 

Arkansas agricultural producers help feed and clothe the world. This responsibility creates unique stresses as they manage operations and face challenges that are often beyond their control. It's critical individuals in less populated areas have access to mental health services. We’re working to strengthen these connections by promoting cooperation between behavioral health professionals and farm advocates in rural America so there is an open line of communication, should medical services be needed.

The 2018 Farm Bill expanded access to stress reduction strategies and suicide prevention programs for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers. Earlier this month, I joined a bipartisan effort to continue delivering resources to rural communities with the introduction of the Farmers First Act of 2023.

The legislation reauthorizes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), a program that connects farmers, ranchers and other agriculture workers to stress assistance programs and resources. Through FRSAN, state departments of agriculture, state extension services and nonprofits receive funding to establish helplines, provide suicide prevention training for farm advocates and create support groups for farmers and farm workers. 

I’m also championing legislation to help rural populations gain better access to tele-mental health services. The Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act of 2023 would establish a grant program for health providers to expand tele-mental health services in rural areas and for individuals working in the farming, forestry and fishing industries.

There is a comprehensive effort from the public and private sectors to improve services designed to confront the challenges of mental illness and deploy support tools for those at risk of suicide. Nearly a year ago the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched establishing a quick and convenient way to get individuals experiencing emotional distress the help they need. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) also implemented new strategies for outreach by coordinating with successful veteran-serving organizations. We’re taking the next step to modernize how we reach and serve veterans who struggle to get mental health care with a new legislative effort. The Not Just a Number Act would ensure the VA is looking at a range of factors to help save the lives of veterans experiencing mental health challenges and help us make better data-driven policy decisions which can translate into real-world success preventing suicide and saving lives.

Improving suicide prevention initiatives remains a priority for Congress and I’m committed to making even more progress on this front. May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month and serves as an important time to raise awareness, fight the stigma and pledge support for initiatives to help people experiencing mental illness. Expanding access to critical care is essential to getting individuals the help they need, no matter where they live.