A new bipartisan, federal bill aims to reduce suicide rates in farming communities

If passed, the STRESS Act would fund a program to provide free mental health resources to farmers and agriculture workers.

A bipartisan, federal bill aimed at curbing suicide in agricultural communities has landed. The proposal, introduced in the House by Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN), is called the Stemming the Tide of Rural Economic Stress and Suicide (STRESS) Act. If passed, it would re-authorize a free mental health resources program known as the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which was established in the 2008 farm bill but was  never funded.

What’s the thinking? “Those who work in agriculture face uniquely high-stress challenges ranging from social isolation to strong dependence on factors outside of their control,” Emmer said in a press release introducing the bill this week. He means that farmers’ livelihoods are influenced by wildly fluctuating forces like low milk prices and natural disasters.

But why now? “Farming is going through a very difficult financial era—we’re in our fourth year of recession as an industry as a whole,” says Michael R. Rosmann, a clinical psychologist and staff member at AgriWellness, a nonprofit that has long advocated for FRSAN to be reauthorized. Rosmann is. “Something is needed. There seems to be a groundswell of attention being given to that something, whatever emerges out of Congress.”

We’ve previously reported on the disproportionate suicide rates in farming communities; in Washington state, a bipartisan team of legislators recently introduced a bill that would operate similarly to FRSAN at the state level. It passed in the House and is now under consideration by the Senate.

If Washington’s move is indication, STRESS may very well follow the same path to federal adoption. Rosmann’s prediction? “I’m optimistic.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.