Linda Geist

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in May, is a good time to look at the startling statistics on suicide and mental health challenges in rural Missouri, says Karen Funkenbusch, University of Missouri health and safety specialist.

Three statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are especially troubling, she says.

Between 2003 and 2017, the suicide rate for rural Missourians rose 78%. And rural men between the ages of 35 and 44 have triple the statewide suicide mortality rate in Missouri. Additionally, all of Missouri’s 99 rural counties are designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas. That is the largest shortage of behavioral health care providers in the U.S., Funkenbusch says.

Those statistics come from “Growing Stress on the Farm,” a 2020 study of expanding economic and mental health disparities in rural Missouri. The Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare, Missouri Department of Mental Health, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Hospital Association and MU Extension worked on the report.

Those growing disparities have pushed mental health advocates in MU Extension to seek ways to help the state’s farm and ranch families find access to services and break down pervasive stigmas regarding mental health.

MU Extension coordinates with the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center and the Missouri Department of Agriculture to provide resources through USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grants.

MFA Foundation is another MU partner that commits to support rural communities in need of mental health services. “The MFA Foundation’s substantial four-year commitment will allow the expansion of teletherapy sessions and increased educational awareness in more rural communities,” says Funkenbusch. “This generous gift will assist in the creation of more resources and the development of a statewide mental health awareness campaign targeting one of Missouri’s most vulnerable populations.”

This often means taking the services to farmers, rather than farmers traveling for treatment, she says. Time and distance are common obstacles that rural families encounter in finding counseling services. Technology helps to overcome these obstacles with services such as telehealth counseling sessions and Zoom meetings.

These “long-distance relationships” also help rural families fight off the pervasive stigma of mental illness. In a small town, people may often recognize your farm pickup parked outside of a counseling office, she says. Or they might worry about running into their counselor at community, school or church events. That may keep some from seeking help.

Telehealth services help to relieve farmers and their families of these stigmas. Farmers, ranchers and immediate family members are eligible to receive free, confidential teletherapy. To request free teletherapy counseling, go to, email or call 573-882-4677.

Another MU Extension service is Show-Me Strong Farm Families, also funded by USDA NIFA, at

MU Extension offers many other mental health programs to help rural Missourians. These include Mental Health First Aid, Q.P.R. Gatekeeper, Taking Care of You, Weathering the Storm in Agriculture: How to Cultivate a Productive Mindset, Communicating with Farmers Under Stress and Tai Chi. Additionally, programs such as Heroes to Hives reach out to military veterans.

Missourians can also access the Iowa Concern Hotline to discuss stress and legal and financial concerns. The hotline is answered 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Dial 711 or email