A potato farmer in Idaho, a miner in West Virginia and a farmer in Texas – what could these three people have in common? At first glance, the three workers listed appear vastly different in geographic location, potential salaries, and cultural background, but a common thread connects them. The challenge of mental health is not relegated to a specific subset of people; it touches us all. And especially for those in rural areas, the stigma of mental illness screams through the deafening silence of those seeking care.
A 2020 study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that nearly 53 million—almost one in five—adults live with mental illness in the United States. Of those who suffer from this disease, rural residents are more likely to experience a seriously mental illness, with suicide rates among people in rural areas almost twice as high as those in large urban areas.
Mental health is essential to an individual’s overall health. Unfortunately, some people do not recognize mental illness as an illness. The thing that one may struggle with the most may be perceived as some kind of chink in the armor or inadequacy. Simply put, mental illness is an illness—one that can be as devastating as cancer or heart disease. Just as with many other disorders, the sufferer is not responsible for the illness they are dealing with. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness is associated with misdirected and unfair shame that becomes an additional burden for someone who is already suffering.
Individuals in rural areas often have demanding blue-collar occupations that can be exacerbated by economic uncertainty, vulnerability to weather, and labor concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused even more stress in the social lives of these people, disrupting their daily routines. Not being able to attend a church service or get together with friends for breakfast at the local diner led to increased feelings of loneliness. Because of all this, men and women in these areas are still less likely to seek help from a health professional to help them with their mental health.
One of the best ways we can address the health crisis in rural America is by building a better system of care for people with mental illness. Health professionals and government officials must do a better job of integrating mental health services with primary care to ensure that everyone has the ability to get the treatment they need.
That’s exactly the driving force behind Foresight’s investment in Patrick County Hospital. For too long, people in the community have been neglected in the care they receive – particularly mental health care. We strive to create an atmosphere where each person knows they are cared for. Providing critical access to care in an area where it currently does not exist is one of the first – and essential – steps in continuing to improve the health care system in Patrick County and Southern Virginia and rebuilding trust with residents who may have felt forgotten.
Implementing systems that build trust between primary care providers and their patients, while adding crucial support from a trained behavioral health care professional, is a critical element in helping rural communities. In a familiar environment, patients can benefit from a full range of mental health treatment options. Providing medication, offering behavioral therapy, and tracking the patient’s progress through a psychiatric consultant are tools in fighting this increasingly common battle. Being at the forefront of technological advancements and providing innovative solutions allows medical professionals to step on potential treatment opportunities.
It is imperative that the stigma of mental illness in rural areas is dispelled and that quality mental health services are provided to the people there. People with mental illness should not suffer in silence or feel alone. Our focus should start with starting the conversation about mental illness, but it shouldn’t end there. To address this crisis, we must also invest in proven approaches to health care and begin to provide the help that so many people need. There are no silver bullets or magic words to stop the problems we face; the healthcare industry has a lot of work to do. More Americans than ever are facing the realities of mental illness; now is the time to reshape our communities and the future of our nation’s mental health care.