Minnesota rural mental health burden addressed by 2019 legislature

Theresia Gillie provides the Minnesota House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division with emotional testimony Jan. 24 about how farm-related stress led to her husband, Keith, dying by suicide in 2017.

Minnesota Bill HF84 was introduced Jan. 17 to the Minnesota State House of Representatives relative to the increased prevalence of the mental health burden in rural Minnesota. 

In 2005, a Minnesota Department of Health report reported that women living in rural counties experienced depression rates as high as 40 percent. Comparatively, only 13-20 percent were reported in urban counties.

The Minnesota Hospital Association indicated a 40 percent increase in emergency department use for mental health concerns from 2007-2014 in Greater Minnesota. This was compared to only a 34 percent increase in the Twin Cities.

Limited resources have been available for rural counties to respond to a mental health illness crisis. Any untreated mental illness is a public health concern because it can lead to debilitating and costly conditions directly related to substance abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. Farming is an occupation where stress is ample with few options for mental health care.  

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that approximately half of Minnesotans who suffer from mental illness are not receiving treatment.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Debra Keil (R-Crookston) to provide $150,000 for Minnesota mental health counseling to support farm families and business operators. These dollars would be in addition to the funds already appropriated 2017 in the amount of $113,000, which will discontinue June 30, 2020.  HF82 is also a bill sponsored by Keil, which would increase funding for rural mental health counseling to $330,00 yearly in fiscal years 2020 and 2021. 

Theresia Gillie, a grain farmer and Kittson County Commissioner, testified before the House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division on Thursday, Jan. 24. She offered a deeply emotional plea urging lawmakers to boost funding aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues and connecting people with the right sources associated with rural mental health services. Gillie’s husband, Keith, 32, died by suicide in April 2017 after being overwhelmed by farm-related stress. Rep. Jeanne Poppe, (DFL-Austin) and the committee chair is hoping to fast track the bill to do just that.

Currently, Minnesota only funds one rural mental health counselor out of Hutchinson, Minnesota. That is Ted Matthews, Minnesota Rural Mental Health director, whose services can be accessed free of cost. Matthews describes his work as primarily helping farmers and their families to develop coping skills, by redirecting their focus on actions they can take rather than on what they are unable to control. This program is said to be effective and necessary, as the demands of farming continue to increase, the necessity for addressing rural mental health needs becomes more acute.

Mental Health Day on the Hill will be held Thursday, March 14 for psychologists and other mental health professionals. A Mental Health Legislative Network Rally is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda.

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