The Bulletin Board

Executive councilors raise questions about mental health program for farmers

By: - April 7, 2022 2:58 pm
A tractor in a corn field

The program has created a clearinghouse webpage, set up two hotlines, and onboarded mental health professionals who will work with farmers. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)

A new state program aimed at improving farmer mental health is facing questions from the Executive Council after the state department responsible for the program requested a one-year extension on spending half a million dollars in federal money.

The council voted Wednesday to table the request, removing it from the consent calendar and putting off a vote on whether to grant the extension until councilors receive more information about the need for the program and its progress since funding was first approved.

Republican councilors David Wheeler and Joe Kenney expressed concern about extending the program, and Wheeler questioned whether the program is even necessary. “We don’t even know if we have any distressed farmers,” he said during the meeting on Wednesday. “Now you’re back needing another year because we can’t find any stressed farmers.”

Wheeler requested an update on what the program has accomplished, and Gov. Chris Sununu asked how much funding has been used to date, information that David Rousseau of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets, and Food did not have at the meeting.

Seth Wilner, a field specialist at the UNH Cooperative Extension who worked on planning and implementing the program, said in an interview he is preparing a response to the councilors’ questions, explaining what farm stress is and why it’s an issue. He pointed to a farmer suicide that occurred in the North Country two months ago as an example of how acute the problem is.

The program has already received federal approval through the USDA for the extension that the state is hesitant to give, according to Wilner. He said the USDA made clear that a one-year extension would be granted, and that the program was designed to fit that timeframe. Without it, implementing the program would be “one heck of a challenge,” he said.

He said the program has spent $25,000 of the funding so far – a number that is low because it’s been supplemented with other grant applications, so the bulk of the $500,000 can go to direct services for farmers, like paying for therapy or seeing a tax expert. 

The program has created a clearinghouse webpage, set up two hotlines – one farmers can call for mental health concerns and the other for legal, financial, and tax services – and onboarded the mental health professionals who will work with farmers. Wilner said that took a lot of time and negotiation since mental health professionals are in high demand and short supply.

The mental health hotline for farmers is 1-800-429-7153. You can reach the resource line at 1-800-785-7914. The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.