HEALTH & FITNESS — Throughout many parts of the country, an increased understanding of mental health has led to enhanced awareness of its importance.
A catch-all description of emotional, psychological and social well-being, mental health affects how people think, feel and act, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, mental health is an important component of overall health. However, in some instances, there remains a gap between understanding mental health and embracing solutions, particularly in rural areas.
“When my 28-year-old nephew died by suicide in a farming community where mental illness was a subject never discussed, my mother courageously announced ‘Enough is enough. We are going to talk about this, and we are going to talk about this in detail,’” said Jeff Winton, founder and chairman of the board of nonprofit Rural Minds.
His commitment to confronting suicide and mental illness in rural areas supports the goal of the organization, which is to serve as an informed voice for mental health in rural America and provide mental health information and resources. A major barrier to individuals seeking help in rural communities is the stigma often associated with mental health challenges. The organization is working to confront the stigma through people talking about their personal, lived experiences with mental illness.
Recognizing the value of sharing deeply personal accounts of mental illness is also the message of Jeff Ditzenberger, a farmer who attempted suicide. His own challenges confronting and managing his bipolar II disorder while returning to farming motivated Ditzenberger to found TUGS, a mental health nonprofit with the mission to address the stigma surrounding mental health challenges and suicide.
Passionate about normalizing discussions about mental illness, Ditzenberger is working with Rural Minds to encourage others in rural areas to talk about their challenges with PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or other mental issues. The goal is for people to become as comfortable with the discussion of mental health as they are talking about COVID-19, the common cold or the flu.
“Sharing the burden of mental illness and life experiences can be really, really powerful,” said Dr. Mark A. Frye, consultant in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic. “As a psychiatrist, I would tell you it’s a critically important part of the overall treatment plan. In my opinion, the concept of providing peer support – sharing lived experiences with mental illness and supporting each other – really is invaluable.”
Barriers to Seeking Metal Health Support in Rural Areas
While mental health is imperative for overall health, some people do not recognize mental illness as a disease; rather, it is sometimes perceived as a character flaw or personal weakness.
“Mental illness is an illness – just like cancer or diabetes,” Winton says. “Just as it is with many other diseases, the person who is ill is not responsible for getting the illness. Much of the stigma around mental illness may be rooted in the misdirected and unfair shame that can be an added burden for someone who is already suffering with a mental illness.
“Similar to many people in rural America, I grew up on a farm and was taught to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get over it, to just move on and to not think about it. Well, that is not an acceptable response to a mental illness. You don’t do that with other illnesses. You can’t do that with mental illness.”
Collaboration is Key
In the spirit of collaborating to better serve the mental health needs of rural America, Rural Minds is partnering with The National Grange, a family-owned community organization with roots in agriculture that was founded in 1867.
“Our aim in collaborating is to develop a grassroots, person-to-person approach to provide people who live in rural communities with mental health and suicide prevention information by working with local Granges, civic groups and community leaders across the country,” Winton said.
Help is Available
There are several established organizations that provide mental health information and services across the country, but Rural Minds focuses entirely on confronting the mental health challenges in rural communities.
Find a compilation of free mental health crisis resources and support and overall mental health resources and support at ruralminds.org, which also offers access to recordings of educational webinars presented by the organization.