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Rural program connects community with mental health services during pandemic

ABC 27 WKOW-Middleton, Texas

(WKOW) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, closing down businesses and keeping people inside, experts say they have growing concerns about mental health.

Bridget Mouchon-Humphrey, program manager for the Southwestern Wisconsin Behavioral Health Partnership, says the group of stakeholders is hoping more people will reach out for services.

The partnership runs a website helping people find resources for mental health care and substance use disorders in rural areas. It covers Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette and Richland counties.

"This was a group that formed around this idea that we can really make some changes to how we access behavioral health resources in our community and how we can really increase what's available for people in our community," Mouchon-Humphrey told 27 News.

Mental health care providers have reported a drop in people using telehealth services right now, during this stressful time.

The team has also seen, anecdotally, an increase in overdoses in southwestern Wisconsin and across the state, which is believed could be connected with the stresses of the pandemic.

"We're very concerned because people don't have access in the first place to a whole lot of recovery support in rural areas," she said. "So many things have changed with COVID that there is some concern that there's going to be an increase in overdoses and other problems for people who are trying to be in recovery."

The site offers tips on how to manage anxiety over COVID-19, while also providing data on the coronavirus in the area.

Farmers are coping with some of the most stressors right now, as dairy farms continue closing and farmers are left with no one to sell their products to as the nation shuts down.

"Across ag sectors, everybody is really stressed right now," said Chris Frakes, project director for the Rural and Farm Resiliency Project.

Dairy farmers, for example, were expecting 2020 to be a turnaround year after suffering big losses in milk prices and sales. But the coronavirus put an end to that comeback.

Wisconsin's Farm Center has taken 82 requests from farmers to get vouchers for counseling services from January through April 18. That's almost as many as were requested for the entire year of 2018, at 89. Vouchers were at the highest all decade in 2019, when farmers requested 182.

"The Farm Center really does a nice job of trying to screen so that the therapist [the farmer is] referred to has some ag background, or some knowledge of the realities of life on the farm, and the stressors on a farm, and that's really important for the farmer, when they need to speak to a therapist, that knows what they're going through," Frakes said.

The partnership program is also working on mental health outreach. Normally, the groups hold community events or trainings, but those have been put on hold. The advocates are instead reaching out directly to farmers who they know may need some help.

But they've also seen farmers step up in big ways to help others in the community by donating their products, even as they're struggling.

"There's also the evidence of resiliency, where people are figuring out how can we match an excess in product with where there's real need and how do we make those connections work to support the well being of the whole community," Frakes said.

Visit the program's network of care site or Facebook page if you need information or help accessing care where you live.