How does rural life affect mental health?
"We all know people who feel that it’s a sign of weakness to accept help from another"
The widely held view of rural life is one that is healthy and wholesome, with quiet surroundings, beautiful countryside and a sense of independence, so it stands to reason that when you first consider the implications of living in the countryside on your mental health, it conjures up a positive image.
Indeed, most studies suggest that mental health is generally better for those living rurally. in terms of developing a diagnosable mental illness, particularly in the case of schizophrenia, but also in the cases of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Urban lifestyles are associated with higher levels of stress and social deprivation, which makes living in the country appear, at first glance, to be beneficial. The statistics are not entirely conclusive, but if the mental health of the rural population isn’t necessarily much better than those who live in cities, it’s certainly not any worse.
However, the problem with this issue isn’t necessarily the prevalence of disorders in rural communities, but the access to mental health services and the stigma associated with this. Much like the majority of governmental services, provisions for mental healthcare tend to be centralised in urban areas. Not only are mental health services restricted for those who live outside of towns and cities, but research on the rural population in this area is also lacking, partly due to the difficulty in defining what ‘rural’ actually means.
The problem, unfortunately, involves a little more than the simple fact that health services tend to be based in cities
Several studies have identified problems that are to do with the “social proximity” of rural communities: In a village or countryside locale, everyone knows everyone else.
This might seem counterintuitive: Communities help their own, and I’ve seen first-hand how members of a rural neighbourhood can look out for each other’s wellbeing. Whilst this aspect of “village life” provides an identity and sense of belonging for those included in its ranks, the fact that knowledge about individuals spreads quickly through the community means that people, particularly men, find it more difficult to admit that they have a problem.
In Oxfordshire, even our most rural areas are still no more than an hour away from the nearest urban centre so these effects may not be felt as strongly as they are in, say, the Scottish highlands, but the points still apply: Despite the often greater physical distances between neighbours, it’s difficult to keep secrets in small communities, and when mental health issues are still stigmatized in the way that they are this creates a culture of non-admission.
A related issue to this is the stoic attitude adopted by many who live in the countryside. We all know people who feel that it’s a sign of weakness to accept help from another, whether it’s as minor as not wanting to ask for directions on a journey, or as major as not recognising when a health problem needs attention. Self-reliance is a particularly popular concept in rural areas, but unfortunately this can often lead to illnesses, particularly mental illnesses, to go undiagnosed and untreated. People who tend to rely on themselves might not even recognise the issue, as they’re less likely to define a problem like depression as a mental illness. In this case, it often means that people who live in remote areas don’t ask for help with their problems until the symptoms become more severe. Again, this is more common in men than women.
So what can be done? Whilst the logistics of providing healthcare to a remote community are unlikely to be drastically improved in the near future, there are several resources available that can be of assistance should you need it. For one, it’s important to remember that you always have the option to book to see a different doctor, if you feel that you don’t want to speak to your normal GP. Family doctors are usually well-known in their community, and if there’s an issue that you’d rather talk about with someone more removed from your situation, then it’s within your rights to do so.
Also, if it’s the logistics of reaching a health professional that’s an issue, there are numerous dedicated organisations that work online to help people in exactly that situation. Depression Alliance run FriendsInNeed.co.uk, which is a way for people affected by depression to meet online, as well as organising support groups or meet-ups in their local area. MIND is a charity that provides a whole host of services, including peer support, information on crisis services and community-based care, and telephone-based infolines. There are also numerous internet forums and discussion boards where you can talk about issues like the ones mentioned here with a host of like-minded people.
Finally, remember that one of the benefits of living in a rural community should be that everyone looks out for each other, so making sure that you have an understanding network of friends can be one of the most effective ways of helping someone with a mental health issue.
For more info on mental health visit mind.org.uk
Related Articles: Lea Lükk – Life Coach, Consultant and Psychologist