Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mental health in rural areas

We all know that recovery from a serious illness is not only about healing physically, but also about healing mentally. Ideally, supportive friends and family assist a recovering patient, in addition to psychological services, should they be necessary. This mental health component has become more apparent in recent days, as we have witnessed injured soldiers return from wars abroad, with physical injuries that are often exacerbated by psychological ones. In the case of veterans, there has been continual investigation and legal battles into mental health services for veterans and access to those services for people with PTSD and psychological issues relating to TBI.

Coming back to the mental component of recovery from illness more generally, I recently read an article that discussed a study examining the mental health of recovering lung cancer victims. Specifically, the study conducted by a professor at the University of Kentucky, looked at levels of mental distress in lung cancer survivors in rural versus non-rural areas. Although one would suspect, or stereotype, that rural areas are more tight-knit and therefore have a stronger support system for people recovering from illness, the study found that when it came to recovering mentally, people in rural areas fared worse on mental health outcome variables. While the study found that these disparities were in part correlated to lower levels of education, the smaller social networks seemed to work against the mental healing process as well. Seeking psychological services might go against social norms and carry a stigma. Importantly too however, is the lack of mental health resources in rural areas.

While I am not sure that the social constraints that seemed to inhibit mental health recovery for these lung cancer survivors is the the case in all rural communities, there is less debate that there is a shortage of mental health resources in rural areas. A newsletter from the Center for Rural Affairs explains that the reasons are not only tied to affordable mental health care, but also general access and availability to mental health care providers. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Consortium for Advanced Rural Psychology Training (MCARPT) is seeking to alleviate the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas with a one-year post-doctoral program. The program aims to train psychologists in rural mental health issues and provide trainees with rotation opportunities in rural communities. The program trains psychologists in a variety of areas that contribute to mental health services available to people living in rural communities.

Recognizing that mental health on its own, and in conjunction with physical healing from injury, is a vital element of a person's overall well-being, it is important that it doesn't get overlooked in the larger battle for adequate health care for all Americans. While only briefly knowing about MCARPT, it seems like a step in the right direction of increasing access to mental health care to rural areas and I hope that there are other programs out there like it.


Running Mommy said...

Do you have the name and/or author of the article you mention in the second paragraph, regarding lung cancer?

Sarah J said...

This is fascinating. While I would probably have guessed that official mental health services are generally lacking in rural areas (along with other vital services), I think I probably would have bought into the "rural myth" that smaller, tight-knit communities provide better informal mental health support networks than the big, lonely city does. For me, this once again underscores the importance of education. Not only does better education lead to more plentiful economic opportunities and better physical health, but it also helps people understand and recognize the need for mental health treatment and view it as a natural and important need.

vlshaw said...

I think also that in rural communities admiting to a mental illness is more stigmatic than in other more educated ones. In the man' man world of blue collar rural labor, Steve telling Bob that he is depressed would not invoke much sympathy. I have witnessed first hand mental illness, and I believe that the laws which are designed to get these people help are inadequate. There are many people in rural areas dealing with mental illness who go undiagnosed, and sadly fade away.

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