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Speaker addresses suicide crisis in rural areas

Jeff Winton spoke recently to the League of Women Voters.

“Jeff, don’t go any further. We just found your nephew hanging from a tree in the backyard.”

That terrible declaration started Jeff Winton on the road to founding Rural Minds, a non-profit that focuses solely on helping rural Americans navigate mental health issues. Winton, a Sinclairville native who moved back to his Mayville dairy farm a couple years ago, recently offered a League of Women Voters presentation.

Winton’s late nephew, Brooks, “is the reason why we’re here,” he said. Brooks was very gregarious, outgoing and lovable, he said.

Two days before Brooks took his life, he attended a big family wedding and thanked his Uncle Jeff at the end of it for everything he had done for his family, hugging him.

“We didn’t think anything of it,” Winton said. “He was an appreciative guy who always went out of his way to thank people who did anything for him.”

Two days later, “the world changed forever.” Winton drove near Brooks’ home and saw numerous first responders’ vehicles there. Immediately realizing something was wrong, he parked and ran to the house. A neighbor, whom Winton grew up with, stopped him with the words quoted at the top of this article.

Brooks “always seemed to be so well adjusted and so healthy that he was the last one in our family we might think would die by suicide,” Winton said.

At the funeral a few days later, “the pastor point blank looked at my family and said, ‘There’s some people in the community who have said, we don’t think we should talk about why your nephew died. People even suggested we should come up with a different excuse…he was in a farming accident, he had a heart attack.’

“My mom said, ‘We’re going to talk about it and we’re going to start talking about it at his funeral.'”

The “courage and candor,” as he put it, of Winton’s mother was fertile soil for the seed of Rural Minds. “The mission of Rural Minds is to serve as an informed voice for mental health in rural America, and to provide mental health information and resources,” the organization’s website states.

Winton said he started the group after initially approaching other non-profits for help with rural American mental health concerns. He said they basically told him, “We realize there’s an issue but we really don’t know how to reach people in farming communities.”

Starting the group spurred his move back to Mayville from out of state. “I decided if I was going to be serious about this… I needed to be back in a rural area. So I moved back to my farm.”

Winton noted that suicide is a highly stigmatized issue, especially in rural America. He said, “Rural Americans are taught from a very early age to be independent, to pull up ourselves by our bootstraps, to not depend on other people — and to not talk about our problems.”

However, by telling his family story, he hopes to personalize the problem.

“Mental illness is as much an illness as cardiovascular disease, a heart condition, even COVID. People must recognize mental problems are an illness so they will get treatment and we’re hoping that by telling these stories… we’ll give people the grace to start talking about these issues in their own family.”

Winton said that rural suicide rates are 64 to 69% higher than in large urban areas. Growers, farmers and ranchers are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide compared to other occupations.

Weakening rural economies worsen the situation, he continued, as does unreliable or nonexistent broadband internet services, which hinder telemedicine opportunities.

In conjunction with the Grange, Rural Minds started a Rural Mental Health Resilience program last fall. It’s explained on their website, ruralminds.org. A key part of it is a pre-packaged PowerPoint presentation on mental health, and tips on how to promote it, that community groups can offer.

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There are resources available in Chautauqua County to help suicidal people. Here are some:

— The Chautauqua County Crisis Hotline is 1-800-724-0461.

— Another suicide hotline is 988, a nationwide endeavor which started last year. That also offers texting.

— The Suicide Prevention Alliance of Chautauqua County offers a website with much information and resources, preventsuicidechq.com.

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