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Illinois Expands Rural Mental Telehealth Program Across the State

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   August 30, 2023

The Farm Family Resource Initiative offers telehealth access for mental health services to rural farming and ranching communities, where suicide rates are two to five times higher than other populations.

Rural health system executives looking to address the soaring mental health crisis may be interested in how Illinois is addressing the issue.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced this week the state-wide expansion of the Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI), a program coordinated with the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine to improve access to mental health services for rural communities, especially those in the agricultural industry.

"As governor, as a father, and as someone who has personally witnessed the mental health epidemic among family and friends, there is nothing more important than making sure every Illinoisan has access to the mental health services they need to lead happier and healthier lives," Pritchard said in announcing the program expansion at the 2023 Farm Progress Show in Decatur. "Our greatest problems require our most creative solutions — and I am confident that this grant program will simultaneously break down barriers and open up doors for our state's number one providers."

The program, supported by federal funding from the US Department of Agriculture's National Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) program, creates a statewide telehealth network for mental health services, along with a grant program to support Future Farmers of America (FFA) state chapters developing new projects aimed at encouraging and improving healthcare access through rural communities and their schools.

The effort addresses a particular pain point in rural healthcare. Farming and ranching communities are traditionally less open to talking about mental health issues, and as a result don’t access local hospitals or clinics when they need help. According to the Livestock Project, suicide rates among farmers are two to five times higher than the national average.

For health systems serving these communities, the challenge lies not only in providing resources, but reaching out to these populations and convincing them to access care. With that in mind, healthcare executives are looking at telehealth and digital health tools and platforms to bridge those gaps.

Illinois launched the FFRI several years ago as a pilot project in six counties, offering both telehealth services and a helpline. Officials say the program has worked so well, improving access and clinical outcomes, that it's being extended to all 102 counties in the state.

Through the program, rural families can access up to six free telehealth sessions with mental healthcare providers through the SIU School of Medicine.

The program could be a model for other states and health systems looking to address mental healthcare at a population health level, targeting groups such as forestry workers, fishermen, migrant workers, and Native American communities.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation at HealthLeaders.


Rural farming and ranching communities don’t talk about their problems or access healthcare on a regular basis, resulting in much higher rates of stress and suicide.

Illinois is expanding a federally funded pilot program that created a telehealth network for mental healthcare in six counties to all 102 counties in the state, and is adding grants to support new programs that expand access to care.

Healthcare organizations are looking for innovative ways to address the soaring mental healthcare crisis among remote and rural populations.

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