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State leaders announce FFA mental health awareness grant program

A farm in rural Champaign County, pictured in spring 2023.

DECATUR – Farmers and residents of rural communities often face stigma when it comes to mental health challenges, but state leaders hope to change that.

Governor JB Pritzker announced Tuesday that chapters of FFA – the group once known as Future Farmers of America – will be eligible for $1,000 grants to fund mental health awareness programs in schools and rural communities. Up to 20 such grants will be available through the Illinois FFA Foundation starting this fall.

Pritzker and other state leaders made the announcement at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, an annual exposition of farm technology and other agriculture industry advancements.

“There is nothing more important than making sure that every Illinoisan has access to the mental health services they need to live happy and healthy lives,” Pritzker said.

The program is being overseen by the Illinois FFA Foundation in partnership with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Farm Family Resource Initiative.

Karen Leavitt Stallman, an ag resource specialist at SIU Medicine who coordinates FFRI, said she hopes the partnership with FFA will help direct attention to the resources available for farmers.

“There is a stigma. It’s hard for someone to reach out for help…” Stallman told Capitol News Illinois. “In the agriculture community, it’s particularly difficult. As farmers, we’re a stoic bunch.”

FFRI began in 2019 the late state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, advocated for its launch. After a pilot in six counties, the program expanded to offer mental health and stress-management resources to the entire state, with increased state and federal funding.

The SIU program offers professional development, webinars and online resources to help farmers and their families manage stress and mental health challenges. They also offer up to six free telehealth counseling sessions to those in the agriculture industry and their families.

The inspiration for the FFA partnership came from a similar program at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, according to Stallman.

SIU system president Dan Mahony said in a news release Tuesday that FFRI is “moving the health of rural families forward” and that the FFA partnership represents a “multi-generational approach to mental health and wellness,” something the governor echoed.

“I have two Gen Z kids myself and let me tell you this generation knows that healthcare includes mental healthcare,” Pritzker said.

Rural communities face particular challenges in both access to and attitudes toward mental health.

July research brief from Adee Athiyaman, a professor at Western Illinois University’s Institute for Rural Affairs, found rural communities lag behind metropolitan ones in awareness about mental health care. This leads to “poor knowledge about mental health issues and minimal support for policies about mental health care,” according to the brief.

Rural areas also face more hurdles when it comes to accessing mental health care. The federal Health Resources & Services Administration designates every rural county in Illinois as a “health professional shortage area” for mental health workers based on population statistics, the number of mental health providers, and the prevalence of substance abuse among other factors.

“FFA members are creative thinkers and know and understand their communities,” Mindy Bunselmeyer, head of the Illinois FFA Center, said in a news release Tuesday. “I’m excited to see the unique ways our membership will look to tackle this challenge.”

If someone faces mental health challenges and is in need of immediate assistance, the national suicide and crisis lifeline can be reached by phone call or text at 988 or online by online chat at 988lifeline.org/chat

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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