It was not a lighthearted greeting.
- As an occupation, farmers rank third in the nation for suicide rates.
- Suicide rates in rural America are 55 percent higher than they are in urban areas.
- Rural Americans are twice as likely to die from opioids as a car accident.
- A major contributing factor to these trends: “Access to healthcare is a growing challenge and the disturbing trend of hospital closures in rural areas continues.”
These were the somber opening statements to kick of what is probably the first national conference on rural stress, by UGAs Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Sam Pardue.
The summit, held over two grey and rainy December days at non-descript hotel near the Atlanta airport, was given the hopeful title, “Rural Stress: Promising Practices and Future Directions.”
About 150 academic researchers, farmer advocates, mental health practitioners, extension agents, and government officials from more than 20 states were on-hand to learn more about the declining state of rural mental health and opioid misuse.
Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black also addressed the immense devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, which caused more than $3 billion in economic damage to Georgia’s agriculture community when it hit South Georgia with category three hurricane winds on Oct. 10 of this year.
“The challenges are severe,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Additional speakers were able to demonstrate that other regions of the country have been more proactive in addressing rural mental health challenges, especially Minnesota and Kansas, states that are much more rural than even Georgia and other southern states.
In Kansas, telemedicine is seen as a tool to connect with and serve rural farmers suffering from mental stress, opioid misuse, and other physical and mental ailments. Minnesota has an organization, Minnesota Rural Mental Health, which has deep community roots and progressive partnerships with Sherriff’s departments, the department of agriculture, clergy, and others to better assist those in need of acute or long-term mental health needs.
And, in an afternoon panel, Georgia Dept. of Behavioral Health’s Jennifer Dunn spoke to her department’s response to the trauma caused by Hurricane Michael, where she was able to connect southwest Georgia farmers with mental health resources, when needed.
Speakers who’ve experienced natural disasters similar in scale to Hurricane Michael were able to caution all in attendance that suicide rates catapulted after such disasters – tornadoes, floods, and other hurricanes – struck their communities.
To be honest, the solutions that were discussed did not seem up for the task of adequately addressing the mental and financial distress that rural communities face in normal times, much less with the recovery from Hurricane Michael looming.
But two things were exceedingly clear and most welcomed by those in attendance.
- It’s truly a good thing to finally convene and discuss these challenges and potential solutions. The people on the front lines helping rural Americans in distress can be just as stressed about their important jobs as the people they are trying to assist.
- It’s possible that the most dangerous factor in dealing with rural stress and the nation’s opioid problem isn’t the stress or the opioids themselves. Rather, the more dangerous element is actually the stigma around mental health and those who seek assistance with their mental health. It’s that stigma which prevents those in need from seeking the help that they need.
That stigma just might be the most important problem we need to address.