Lone counselor for farmers faces long drives, longer call sheets
ST. PAUL -- Ted Matthews needs some help.
The 71-year-old crisscrosses the state each week and is almost always on his phone. He's the lone psychologist tasked with serving Minnesota's farmers and farm families. And while he loves his job, it can be tough to manage alone.
“I’m hoping that I get some help," Matthews said, "and I think I will."
Minnesota lawmakers last year tried to get some money allocated to let the Department of Agriculture bring on more mental health counselors to offer free services in connection with the state college system. But that effort failed as it was wrapped up in a massive omnibus spending bill that former Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.
Now, lawmakers say they'll push to get the extra funding through the Legislature quickly. And chairs of House and Senate committees that oversee agriculture and rural development say they'd like to see that happen early.
“We did have additional money for mental health issues for the farming community and I think that that’s one area that I would hope that there continues to be agreement on,” Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, chair of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Policy Committee said.
Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, chairs the House Agriculture, Food Finance and Policy Division. Poppe said Matthews plays a critical role in helping farmers and others in rural Minnesota manage depression and stress and she'd like to see the Legislature offer more support.
Minnesota farmers have braced through a fifth year in a row of low commodity prices, tariff fights, low yields and inclement weather and most recently, a government shutdown that could soon reach the one-month mark.
"He is the solo operator when it comes to rural mental health," Poppe said. "Being one person who travels the entire state, and is on-call throughout the entire state, it’s become too much of a burden for one person to try to continue to do that."
Matthews woke up at 6 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, got on the road at 6:30 and met three clients in Mankato after making the 75-mile drive from Hutchinson.
"Half of my life is being there, half is getting there," Matthews said.
And much of the getting there portion, as with most other parts of his day, involves fielding phone calls. He got three late Thursday morning in the span of less than an hour.
"The stresses on farms are incredible," Matthews said, "and the stresses on farm families are incredible."
Farming organizations and the University of Minnesota Extension have opened up free resources to help farmers experiencing tough times, but farming advocates say the state needs to put more funding into mental health programs and loan assistance.
Matthews doesn't log his call volume. But other state helplines said they logged dozens of mental health calls in the last year.
Crisis counselors at the Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline fielded 101 calls between July of 2017 and June of 2018, according to the Department of Agriculture. And 16 people reached out to crisis counselors between July of 2018 and November.
Minnesota Farm Advocates, a financial counseling service, served 242 clients between July of 2017 and June of 2018.
Resources for farmers
Mental health and stress management support
Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline - (833) 600-2670 x 1
The helpline is free, confidential and available 24/7. Trained staff and volunteers in Minnesota can help manage stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
Mental Health and Family Services Line - 1-800-FARM-AID
Farm Aid works with farm advocates, counselors and hotline operators that can help provide support.
Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor - 320-266-2390
Ted Matthews works with farmers across the entire state. There is no cost to accessing support from Matthews.
Mental Health Minnesota - text "MN" to 741741
You can text the service to reach mental health crisis responders.
Free financial counseling from the University of Minnesota Extension
If you or a farmer you know is experiencing financial stress, contact the Farm Information Line at 1-800-232-9077 to set up a financial counseling session.
Minnesota Farm Advocates - "Farmers Helping Farmers" - 1-800-967-2474
Farm Advocates provide one-to-one assistance for Minnesota farmers who face crisis caused by either a natural disaster or financial problems.