Clergy Fill Gaps in Rural Mental Health Services

Faithful First Responders

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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The Rev. Jillene Gallatin, a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, in Waseca, Minnesota, is among a growing number of rural clergy who seek training on suicide prevention. (Steve Woit)

Preventing suicide is personal to the Rev. Jillene Gallatin, a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, in Waseca, Minnesota.

"My mom died by suicide when I was 14," she says.

One year later, Gallatin attempted to take her own life. Now, she's sharing her story to help others who may be struggling.

"Though loss by suicide has been a part of my story, it hasn't really been something that I've shared or named," she explains. "I felt that when this was coming up again and again, it might be something that I could really champion, so I looked for ways to kind of offer that as a resource."

Gallatin was one of several clergy members in Minnesota and other states who took part in the online LivingWorks Faith training program.

In her community, she also serves as a member of the Waseca County Suicide Prevention Cohort to identify mental health resources and aid in suicide prevention. That cohort works to help people recognize how to connect those struggling with mental health with the right help resources.

Suicide rates are nearly two times higher in rural areas of the country than in urban centers. At the same time, mental health professionals are scarce in rural America. Nearly two-thirds of all rural counties lack a psychiatrist as farmers face growing stress.

Clergy and other community leaders are working to fill those gaps, and suicide-prevention training for this group is increasing.

A notable example is the Minnesota departments of agriculture and health, which developed a series of training programs in the Minnesota Community Partners Preventing Suicide Program, targeted for a variety of community members from clergy to youth.

One of those programs was offered for clergy like Gallatin as part of a partnership with LivingWorks, a suicide prevention/intervention training company (…).


Glen Bloomstrom, director of faith community engagement at LivingWorks, is a retired ordained Baptist minister who trained chaplains and other military personnel at the Pentagon in suicide prevention. He has also instructed members of the agriculture community in Minnesota, from local bankers to Farm Bureau employees.

Demand is high for the training. It's common to have 100 people on a waiting list, Bloomstrom says.

"Lots of people are talking about how they know people who have died from suicide," he continues. "Now, it is very prevalent."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2000 and 2020, suicide rates increased 46% in nonmetro areas compared to 27.3% in metro areas.

In 2019, Bloomstrom says, the state of Minnesota decided it needed to engage more clergy on the suicide-prevention front. Clergy are a key part of prevention efforts, he adds, because they are well-known and trusted in a community even by people who don't go to church.

"In northern Minnesota, we went through safe-talk training," he explains. "They had a suicide in town, and the principal called the youth pastor because he was trained. He was able to access materials, and he coordinated the clergy. It doesn't take everybody and anybody, but a few who can be catalysts."

Bloomstrom says it is a complicated grief for people who lose someone to suicide. Family members left behind are 40% more likely to consider taking their own lives, he says.

"We've got to be up front to recognize a lot of stigma around suicide and mental health," Bloomstrom adds. "The rural culture is proud, independent and self-sufficient. I'm a guy; I don't want to be weak. We isolate, and that's when you think more and more about suicide."

Though clergy make up the majority of community members who people turn to in times of crisis, Bloomstrom says there are many other potential intervenors. Bartenders, personnel at American Legion posts and local cafes all could be important, he says. Potential help can come from others, too. Agribusiness cooperative CHS Inc. sponsored a workshop recently for seed salesmen and fertilizer dealers.

"We're looking for brave people to care for one another," he says. "Why can't we do that confidently and change the narrative in our rural communities? I think we have people who are concerned and are great listeners. I do think it's skill-based training. Let's go to a training that gives confidence to then use it."


-- For more information on LivingWorks, visit…

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