This year’s Farm Safety and Health Week is the first to have a designated mental health awareness day.

In an effort to raise awareness about mental health, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed House Resolution 59, which declares the Wednesday of Kentucky’s Farm Safety and Health Week as “Farmer Suicide Prevention Day” in Kentucky. This year, that falls on Sept. 23, said Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Department of Agriculture commissioner.

“This year will mark the beginning of having a dedicated day to raise awareness on the importance of mental health in our rural and agricultural communities,” he said. “This dedicated mental health awareness day will allow us to have those difficult conversations surrounding mental health and suicide prevention in our farm families and rural communities.”

The stresses of being a farmer are as unique as the farmer, Quarles said.

“Mental health issues have always been present in rural Kentucky, down to the farm family,” he said. “There are many reasons. Unlike most occupations that receive a paycheck every two weeks, farmers get paid once a year. That growing uncertainty is compounded by intense capital expense as well as the fact that even if you do everything right, a storm or natural disaster can come along and ruin your crop at any moment. Not only is farming a physically hazardous occupation but it is also incredibly stressful. Farmers are individual people and many are not comfortable discussing their stresses or issues.”

KDA officials know that a single day isn’t going to solve the problem, which is why they have been working in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture, University of Kentucky, American Farm Bureau, Kentucky Farm Bureau and other state agencies to accumulate data and develop an agri-centric infrastructure to support farmers and rural communities, Quarles said.

“We know that there are instances of suicide and mental health needs in rural America,” he said. “However, one of the biggest problems we face in addressing these issues is that we do not know how big of an issue this is. We know it is underreported here in Kentucky, which keeps us from knowing the full extent of the issue. What we do know is that it is serious, which makes a lack of data frustrating.”

One of the first steps that the KDA and its state and federal partners are taking is to gather these numbers and further extend outreach, hence the importance of “Farmer Suicide Prevention Day,” Quarles said.

“This year, due to COVID, many of our usual events will be replaced with various videos and online activities stressing the importance of physical and mental health,” he said. “One message that many of our high school Kentucky Future Famers of America members are putting out is a reminder to remember family first after a hard day.”

Aside from awareness and data collection, the KDA is also working with its state and federal partners to develop a mental health infrastructure custom-tailored to rural and farming communities, Quarles said.

“In reality, most states don’t have anything set up to address these issues,” he said. “There is definitely a move here to get an infrastructure up and running for those communities. We are working toward applying for federal grant money to help build that infrastructure and working with the USDA, who are in the early phases of allocating resources toward mental health awareness and services in our farming and rural communities.

While there is much to be done, the KDA is encouraging anyone with ideas for reaching out to these communities or for programs to aid in serving the mental health needs of rural and farming communities to reach out to the KDA. For those in crisis or in need of help, dial 741-741, Quarles said.

“It has been a tough few years on the family farm and we want our farmers to know that help is out there if they need someone to talk to,” he said.

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com.

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

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