BILLINGS — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced his plans to introduce a new bill that aims to help farmers connect with mental health resources to the U.S. Senate Wednesday.
With Montana consistently ranking among the highest suicide rates in the country, Tester said it was time for him to introduce the bill, called the Seeding Rural Resilience Act.
“When you sit on a tractor for 14 hours a day and think about all the things that are going wrong in your life, it can screw with your head,” Tester, a Montana Democrat, said from Washington, D.C., in a Wednesday press call.
Tester said the act "will provide farmers with new tools and resources to manage and reduce mental stress."
Tester said a part of this bill would provide volunteer training to U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who work with farmers face-to-face daily in suicide prevention and recognizing stress detection.
"And it will help the folks who work with farmers every day to de-escalate tensions, especially when bad news is delivered, and connect producers with available resources that are out there,” Tester said.
Tester spoke specifically of training people who work for the Farm Service Agency. This is the agency that farmers turn to for loans, commodity price support, and disaster relief.
"Some of those employees have been around for 35 years," Tester said. "And they know these guys and gals and they know how they react. And besides that, these folks are part of the community. They don't want to see anybody do something bad to themselves."
Another part of that training includes helping federal ag employees develop a knowledge of the mental health care options available for their neighbors.
Tester said the bill carries a price tag of about $3 million. A portion of that money would go toward a public-service campaign to promote mental health awareness and resources, Tester said.
"And it will be tailored to reach the folks that need to see it," Tester said, later mentioning advertising on TV, radio, and interstate billboards.
Tester said the third part of the bill entails gathering more information from farmers who are struggling with their mental health.
"My bill directs the secretary of agriculture to work with stakeholders to create a mental health task force that will determine the best practices to respond to farm and ranch mental stress.”
Often times the farmers who need mental health care are miles away from where they can be treated. Tester mentioned the role that good, high-speed internet plays in getting people help.
“We need more of it because if you are out in rural areas hopefully," Tester said. "Eventually, there will be a situation where you can get on your own computer and get a hold of a mental health professional that you would normally see in person. Without good broadband, without good high speed internet it just simply won’t work."
The bill is still in its infancy. It has yet to be assigned to a committee.