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New 24/7 hotline gives WI farmers mental health support as pandemic wears on

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(WKOW) -- Rising COVID-19 case numbers and uncertainty in reopening plans are continuing to impact farmers and their mental health, which is part of the reason farmers say a new 24/7 hotline connecting them directly with licensed mental health professionals couldn't have come at a better time.

"Through this COVID, where people are secluded, farmers are always in their own way secluded," said Doug Rebout, a farmer in Janesville who's also president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association -- one of many organizations asking state officials for more support for farmers' mental health over the last few years due to routinely bad weather, commodity prices, and now coronavirus.

"We have seen the need really increasing all the time, especially lately, for farmers to have some kind of resource they can reach out to any time of the day if they want somebody to talk to," said Jayke Krull, director of the Wisconsin Farm Center within the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

They've seen big increases over the last few years in requests for vouchers to help farmers pay for mental health services. So far, 2020's requests are up 28 percent compared to this time last year.

That's why Wednesday DATCP launched a hotline -- free for farmers to call and talk to a licensed mental health professional 24/7.

"We really now are excited to have that resource so that we can make sure that they are able to reach out to the person who can really help them," Krull said.

The hotline is designed for people in crises -- any time of the day or night -- but long-term counseling is also available through the Farm Center.

In addition to those resources, DATCP is hoping to help train people who interact with farmers to help spot warning signs.

It's called QPR training, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer -- helping people better recognize warning signs in farmers.

"That's training the salesmen or whoever comes out to the farm to pick up on different things and say, 'Hey, are you alright,'" Rebout said.

DATCP will release more information about those QPR sessions next week on its website.

The 24/7 hotline is a pilot program for now, running for at least the next eight or nine months. It's free for farmers to use, funded through the state budget.

"I've lost people that I know, I love to suicide, and I don't want to go through that again," Rebout said.

The number for the hotline is 1-888-901-2558.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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