A potato farmer in Idaho, a coal miner in West Virginia and a rancher in Texas – what could these three individuals have in common? At first glance, the three workers listed seem very different in terms of geographic location, potential salaries, and cultural upbringing, but a common theme connects them. The challenge of mental health is not relegated to a specific subset of people; it affects us all. And especially for those in rural areas, the stigma of mental illness cries out through the deafening silence of those seeking care.
A National Institute of Mental Health study in 2020 showed that nearly 53 million — nearly one in five adults — live with mental illness in the United States. Among those who suffer from this disease, rural residents are more likely to experience a serious mental illness, with suicide rates among residents of rural counties being nearly twice as high compared to those of large metropolises.
Mental health is essential to an individual’s overall health. Unfortunately, some people don’t recognize mental illness as an illness. The thing a person can struggle with the most can be seen as some sort of chink in the armor or as a deficiency. Simply put, mental illness is an illness – an illness that can be as devastating as cancer or heart disease. As with many other disorders, the ill person is not responsible for the illness they face. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness is linked to misdirected and unfair shame that becomes an additional burden for someone who is already suffering.
People in rural areas often work in demanding blue-collar jobs, which can be exacerbated by economic uncertainty, vulnerability to weather conditions, and labor issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused even more stress in the social lives of these people by disrupting their daily routines. Not being able to attend a church service or get together with friends for breakfast at the local restaurant has resulted in an increased sense of loneliness. Despite all of this, men and women in these areas are still less likely to seek help from a medical professional for help with their mental health.
One of the best ways to deal with the health care crisis in rural America is to build a better system of care for people with mental illnesses. Health professionals and government officials need to do a better job of integrating mental health services with primary care to ensure everyone has the ability to receive the treatment they need.
This is exactly the driver of Foresight’s investment in Patrick County Hospital. For too long, individuals in the community have been neglected in the care they receive, especially in mental health care. We strive to create an atmosphere where every individual knows they are being taken care of. Providing critical access to care in an area where it currently does not exist is one of the first – and major – steps in continuously improving the health care system in Patrick County and Southern Virginia and restoring trust with residents who may have felt forgotten.
Building systems that build trust between primary care providers and their patients while adding the crucial support of a trained behavioral health care specialist is an essential part of helping rural communities. In a familiar setting, patients can benefit from a full range of mental health treatment options. Providing medication, offering behavioral therapy, and monitoring patient progress through a psychiatric consultant are tools to combat this ever-widening battle. Being at the forefront of technological advancements and offering innovative solutions allows healthcare professionals to gain a foothold in potential treatment options.
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 have to suffer in silence or feel alone. Our goal should start by opening the conversation about mental illness, but it shouldn’t stop there. To address this crisis, we also need to invest in proven health care approaches and start providing the help that so many people need. There are no magic bullets or magic words that will solve the problems we face; the health industry needs to get to work. More Americans than ever are facing the realities of mental illness; now is the time for us to reshape our communities and the future of our country’s mental health care.