Alum’s Nonprofit Combats the Mental Health Crisis in Rural U.S.

Stories You May Like

O, Christmas Tree! Bryant Park’s Evergreen Grew on Alum’s Farm

CALS’ Beloved Apple Vending Machine Remains Fruit-Full

Cornell-Based Program Cultivates Stability for NY’s Farming Families

After a family tragedy, veteran dairy farmer Jeff Winton ’80 founded Rural Minds in the hope of helping others

By Lindsay Lennon

Having grown up on his family’s dairy operation on the banks of Lake Erie in Chautauqua County, NY, Jeff Winton ’80 is acutely familiar with the plight of the American farmer.

The isolation. The unpredictability of climate. The misconception that farm life is carefree and relaxing, when in reality it’s demanding and often backbreaking work.

And, especially, the ingrained belief that farmers should be able to solve their own problems—even when it comes to internal struggles, which they seldom admit out loud.

A man feeding a calf a bottle of milk
Winton feeds a calf.

As evidenced by the tragic fact that suicide rates in rural America are a staggering 64–68% higher than those in large urban areas, it’s a thought pattern that all too often turns deadly.

“You’re taught to be independent,” says Winton, founder and CEO of Rural Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling mental illness and substance use disorder in U.S. rural communities. “You’re taught not to talk about your problems, to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ and not to talk about something as personal as mental illness.”

Through speaking engagements, community and media outreach, and dissemination of literature, webinars, and other resources, Rural Minds is singularly focused on addressing the mental health crisis in rural America—including farming, fishing, and mining communities—a contingent that has been largely left out of the national conversation around suicide prevention. 

You’re taught to be independent. You’re taught not to talk about your problems.

Through partnerships with rural-based organizations like the National Grange and Cornell-based NY FarmNet, Rural Minds collaborates with boots-on-the-ground social workers and mental health professionals who work directly with residents, connecting them with services.

The dismal rate of mental healthcare access for the nation's roughly 46 million rural dwellers only makes the organization’s work more vital. 

For instance: such areas have 20% fewer primary care providers than urban ones, and 65% of rural counties have no psychiatrists. Even telemedicine—which exploded in popularity during the COVID pandemic—can be out of reach, as more than a quarter of rural homes lack high-speed Internet access.

These statistics became excruciatingly palpable for Winton in 2012, when his nephew died by suicide on the family farm at age 28. He had, by all outward appearances, a happy life: he was athletic, polite, and outgoing. He was engaged to the mother of his children and was in the process of purchasing his first home.

An infographic with statistics on mental health in rural America

When his nephew died, Winton says, some in the community urged the family to keep the cause secret.

Stories You May Like

O, Christmas Tree! Bryant Park’s Evergreen Grew on Alum’s Farm

CALS’ Beloved Apple Vending Machine Remains Fruit-Full

“They advocated for us making up a reason, like a farming accident or a heart attack,” says Winton, who still owns and operates two dairy farms. “Suicide was so stigmatized that they didn’t think my family, who had been in this farming community for many generations, should admit what happened.”

Winton delivered the eulogy—not only disclosing the cause of his nephew’s death, but speaking about it in detail. And after forming Rural Minds in 2021, he has made it his mission to keep talking about it.

“Knowing how to start a conversation about it can save a life,” says Karen Govel McDermott ’80, Winton’s former CALS classmate, who handles Rural Minds’ communications and web content.

“Knowing the warning signs and getting information out to people who are struggling, who are afraid to talk about it because of the stigma, is so important. These are people who have never heard this kind of information before—who haven’t had access, who don’t know where to turn for resources.” 

A man stands at a podium giving a speech at Cattleman's College
Speaking at the 2023 Cattlemen's College, an annual educational event for cattle producers.

Adds Winton: “There are a lot of people like my nephew who are suffering in silence. They think they should be able to just snap their fingers and get over it. But one thing we always talk about is that mental illness—whether it’s depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder—is an illness just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. You don’t just get over it. You need medical intervention.”

Winton notes the group has been told by several rural residents or their family members that attending a Rural Minds event made the difference between life and death. He admits that he gets goosebumps just relaying some of the feedback he’s received over the years.

“I was on the brink of suicide, and the things you said at that workshop made me realize I wasn’t alone,” one person reported from California.

“I’ve been contemplating suicide for years, and my family doesn’t know—but as soon as you were done speaking, I called my mother, and when I get home this afternoon, she’s going to help me get in to see a therapist and get the help I need,” a woman told Winton after a meeting in the Finger Lakes.

Greg Mruk is executive director of NY FarmNet, which was founded in CALS in 1986 to provide free consultation services for farmers navigating difficult financial or emotional circumstances. (Winton also sits on NY FarmNet’s advisory board.) 

Knowing how to start a conversation about it can save a life.

Karen Govel McDermott ’80

Mruk says that much of Rural Minds’ effectiveness in bringing its messaging to small-town America can be attributed to Winton’s own agricultural upbringing. Rural residents, he notes, may not be as receptive to “some slick guy who shows up in a suit”—but when Winton speaks, they see themselves in him.

“He never forgot where he came from, and he’s able to make that connection, whether it’s in North Dakota, South Carolina, or Upstate New York,” says Mruk.

“You shake Jeff’s hand, and it’s a little calloused. I’ve more than once had a conversation with him after he’s just come out of the milkhouse. That sends a message to the farmer. ‘You understand my life. You understand where I’m coming from.’”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in emotional distress, call or text 988 for 24/7 support.

Infographic by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All images provided.

Published January 11, 2023


  1. Jeanne Arnold -Schwetje, Class of 1978

    We could really use the expertise and awareness of Rural Minds here on the North Fork of Long Island. Farmers and baymen are finding it hard to keep their families’ farms and businesses. My Dad grew up on a dairy farm upstate and I know what a tough business farming can be….

    • Jeff Winton, Class of 1980

      Hello Jeanne:

      Thanks very much for your message. I’d love to talk to you about how Rural Minds can help on the North Fork of Long Island. One of our wonderful partners at Farm Net lives and works in your area and I’m sure that she would also be happy to speak to you. Please contact me at and I will be happy to begin our conversation.
      Jeff Winton

  2. Steven Suchow, LCSW

    The plight of the American farm worker share many similarities to several other occupations; that of policemen, firemen, and military personnel. The stigma of suffering a mental health condition, or mental illness, combined with the mentality that we should be able to help ourselves without external intervention can be a deadly combination. Men, in particular, often feel that they are expected to “push through” their problems- to keep silent and show strength in the face of excruciating emotional pain. Many cannot, and succumb to what they feel is the only viable solution; taking their own life.
    The author points out that the rural farmer has one additional roadblock to overcome; that of access to mental health workers. It’s more difficult to get that help.
    Our society has a responsibility to make help more readily available for those who suffer mental health issues. At least we need a way to be able to talk about it more openly. Yes, as the author points out, we need to see mental health suffering the way we view any other physical illness. We can’t do it alone, and needing help does not makes us any less of a person. We are all human, and any one of us can suffer at any time.

    • Jeff Winton, Class of 1980

      Thank you very much for your message, Steven. I’d love to connect with you to tell you more about Rural Minds and determine if there are ways in which we can partner. I can be reached at
      Thanks for your comments of support and affirmation.
      All my best,
      Jeff Winton

  3. Carol Wiley Bossard, Class of 1964

    This is SO good. Mental health issues are burgeoning everywhere, and rural areas are certainly suffering greatly. So many good professionals would rather live in an urban area where there are many options for living. I’ve seen a therapist a few times in my life and found the experience so very helpful. Unfortunately, he has retired, and couldn’t recommend — to me —- a replacement. That is sad — both for me and for our region. We’ve lost children in this school district to suicide. That should trigger some intense discussion and work to meet this challenge, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of change yet.

    • Jeff Winton, Class of 1980

      Thank you for your candor, bravery and sharing your journey with us. The shortage of health care professionals in general as you rightfully point out is a major issue in rural America, and it is even more acute when trying to find mental health professionals. We’d welcome a conversation with you if you would like. I can be reached at We hope to hear from you.
      All my best,
      Jeff Winton

  4. Jenifer Ong-Meyers, Class of 1986

    Thank you for writing about these heartbreaking facts and tragedies – I learned so much. This industry indeed does face many complex hardships, including climate/weather, the economy, stigma and mental illness – it appears not just the experiences of families of some police, other first respondents and the military. Sounds like there is some progress, albeit slow, being made. I wish Jeff Winton and Rural Minds much better times and good luck this new year.

    • Jeff Winton, Class of 1980

      Thank you very much for your kind and supportive message. We’d love to have you join us on this journey. For starters, you can sign up for our free monthly newsletter. The newest one just was published this morning. You can sign up and learn more by going to our website at Please also feel free to reach out to me at
      All my best,
      Jeff Winton

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like