A new program in Northeastern Minnesota aims to help rural workers, primarily farmers, with their mental health challenges.

The free Rural Mental Health Care Program began in March and caters to farmers, miners and loggers. With higher suicide rates in rural communities and mounting financial fallout from the pandemic, these workers face unique challenges.

"Farmers have been kind of neglected over the past five (to) 10 years ... and there's so much in their lives that they're unable to control," Rich Tunell, program coordinator, said.

Tunell takes a personal approach in his role as program coordinator. He's willing travel to a farm and stay for an entire day if that's what someone needs, or he will meet them in a place where they feel safe and comfortable.

"(I) just talk to them and really concentrate — not necessarily on mental illness or anything like that — more on mental health and dealing with their stress ... they have to deal with every day," Tunell said.

Tunell's appointments don't have time limits, nor do they follow a rigid schedule. He spends time building relationships with and gaining the trust of his clients — work that goes beyond a typical therapist appointment, he said.

"(I have) a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh pair of ears to hear (their) situation and ... listen to the heart of who they are and how they're dealing with everyday life," he said.

Starting a mental health program in the midst of a pandemic was difficult, Tunell said, but the need for its services was apparent.

Most farms are located in remote areas, and their social gathering spaces like coffee shops and churches were shut down for a period of time during the start of the pandemic. This, coupled with self-reliant tendencies, left some farmers feeling isolated.

"They're still (feeling) very isolated and alone and trying to figure out all this stuff on their own," he said.

People who work in the mining and lumber industries can also use the program.

Like farmers, they're also facing new stresses during the pandemic as companies have shut down and/or conducted layoffs. As a result, they may face financial challenges or struggle with their identity as a miner or logger.

"They still feel a strong connection to that position that they've been working and the people that are there," he said, adding that communities in the area were built around these industries.

Rural Minnesota communities saw higher suicide rates from 2013-17 compared to the seven-county metro area, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

These statistics have made Tunell more blunt when talking with his clients. Although it's sometimes difficult to encourage people in the region to discuss their feelings, he asks direct questions to understand: "How are you really? And do you have (suicide) ideations at all?"

With funding from the Miller-Dwan Foundation, the Lake Superior Community Health Center runs the free program that serves Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

Those needing help with their mental health can contact Tunell at 218-730-6833 or rtunell@lschc.org.

To get help

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

  • Crisis Text Line: Text MN to 741741

  • South St. Louis, Lake, Cook and Carlton counties/Fond du Lac Band: 218-623-1800 or 844-772-4742

  • North St. Louis County/Bois Forte Band: 218-288-2100

  • Itasca County: 218-326-8565 or 211*

  • Koochiching County: 800-442-8565 or 211*

*St. Louis County 211 services are not crisis-related