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Clergy lead new suicide training to combat rising rates among farmers

The National Rural Health Association reports the suicide rate among farmers is 3.5 times higher than the general population.

WASECA COUNTY, Minn. — Stark new data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows the number of people who died by suicide increased by 3% last year.

It's the second year in a row the suicide rate has gone up after dipping early in the pandemic. The data also found that different groups are more affected by suicide, impacting men four times more than women. 

That dynamic, though, is even more evident across rural America where suicide rates are higher and access to mental health resources are more scarce.

"Mental wellness, just for a long time, has not been something like any other health," said Grace Lutheran Church Senior Pastor Jillene Gallatin. 

Gallatin, and the church in Waseca County, is a trusted presence in the area that's littered with farm fields. There are at least 700 farms there, many of which are family-owned. The threat of losing one, on top of other unpredictable factors, can affect any farmer's mental health. 

"Creating a community of depth and connection has always been foundational to who I am," said Gallatin. "Even on my first couple Sundays I was telling people, I know pain and I know joy and I have some ideas to cultivate that, so what if we try it together."

She's one of about 80 clergy members across southwest Minnesota and South Dakota taking a four-week suicide prevention training through LivingWorks - a service that says it's driving change with evidence-based programs for 40 years. It says the program helps create a network of safety for people in crisis. 

That was evident during Gallatin and the county's first "green out" event this May that promoted raising awareness about mental health. Businesses and people were encouraged to take the group's promotional material and wear green buttons and ribbons. 

"We need to be able to talk about it in a way that prevents our stories from being, I know somebody who died by suicide to I was able to provide resources so my loved one is well and alive," said Gallatin. 

The National Rural Health Association reports the suicide rate among farmers is 3.5 times higher than the general population - something Gallatin knows all too well. Her mother died by suicide when Gallatin was just 14-years-old.

"That isolation, or feeling less than, is indescribable and especially as a teenager," said Gallatin, who says what then happened a year later is part of the reason she dedicates her life to service. 

She tried to take her own life and her pastor then is the one who helped save her, making her call to prevention that much more personal. 

"It's so painful to recount all of that and yet that people see I'm willing to go there, I will share my hurt with you so hopefully you can share your hurt with me and we're better together and we make a difference," said Gallatin. 

Lawmakers are also seeking $10 million in this year's Farm Bill for the Agricultural Department's stress assistant network that funds behavioral health services.

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, there is help available from the following resources:

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