The stress level in rural communities is off the charts. Farm and ranch closures, land forfeitures, labor issues and more contribute, and according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a full five years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit—rates of suicide in rural communities measured twice that of urban areas.
To address this desperate problem, the USDA is funding four regional farm and ranch stress assistance networks, and Middle Tennessee State University is among more than 50 partners participating in the effort for the southern region.
The three-year, $7.2 million southern region project will span 13 states and two U.S. territories, and is being coordinated by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Partner organizations in addition to MTSU represent agencies from land-grant institutions to government agencies, commodity and lending groups and nonprofit organizations.
Heather Sedges, an associate professor in the UT Extension Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, will serve as the overall project leader.
Chaney Mosley, assistant professor of agricultural education in the School of Agriculture, will lead the MTSU portion of the project. Other Tennessee partners include the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the UT Institute of Agriculture's MANAGE program and the Tennessee Farmer Suicide Prevention Taskforce.
"This funding allows us to establish a multi-faceted and network-driven response to the needs of farmers and ranchers, their families, and communities as they navigate challenging times," Sedges said.
The network will coordinate six specific strategies designed to help rural citizens and communities.
These include establishing hotlines for immediate accessibility, developing a comprehensive website with information and resources to address individual situations and curating and creating resources for the website.
The effort will also establish training for representatives working within rural communities to support individuals through direct services or support groups. Research into how to alleviate farmer and rancher stress as well as the issues endemic to rural communities is also part of the effort.
The regional networks are expected to capitalize on the natural synergy between extension agriculture and family and consumer sciences programs. Individual farmer success is a direct complement to economically and physically healthy rural communities.
"School-based agricultural educators are positioned in the heart of farming communities," Mosley said. "MTSU will lead efforts to investigate middle and high school agriculture teacher perceptions and experiences around farm and ranch stress and suicide in order to create resources for teachers to use in the classroom and in their communities."
"We hope this effort will combat the negative stigmatization of stress and mental health challenges by arming teachers and agricultural youth with resources to recognize warning signs of mental health conditions and empower them to share resources with those in need," he added.
Sedges said partners will begin almost immediately working to establish the overall network infrastructure, as well as links to partnering agencies. Training and outreach will begin in 2021.