Isolation is a formidable challenge, but it can be overcome. Unlike moments of solitude, which may be both peaceful and refreshing, prolonged social isolation is a risk factor for both physical and mental health. While loneliness is something of a universal human problem, it poses particular obstacles within rural communities because access to support services may be more limited here than in urban areas. Furthermore, rural residents tend to be less likely to reach out for help than city-dwellers. However, you do not need to stick it out on your own. Facing these tough realities with gritty determination and forging new partnerships based on local connections can provide powerful tools for resilience.
The more we acknowledge the problem of social isolation, the better equipped we become to find effective solutions. Recent publications from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (2020) indicate a growing awareness of the unique challenges faced in rural and remote communities. These challenges may include the need to travel greater distances to find professional services, as well as limited internet bandwidth, which can make it more difficult to take advantage of the growing number of virtual support systems.
Addressing these issues requires collaboration across a range of different sectors, from transportation, to technology, to infrastructure. Such changes involve complex and time-consuming processes. In the meantime, it’s important not to ignore the problem or hope that it will resolve itself. According to the results from a 2018 study conducted by the National Survey of Farmer Mental Health, 35% of Canadian producers met the criteria for depression classification and 58% met the criteria for anxiety classification. Even so, 40% of respondents indicated that they would hesitate to seek professional help due to concerns about how they would be perceived by others. As increasing numbers of people speak out about the very real challenges posed by isolation, the underlying stigma surrounding mental health issues can be slowly yet steadily vanquished.
To overcome stigma, we must create an environment where people recognize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Doing so can be especially difficult within smaller communities where it may be more difficult to maintain privacy and where there may be an expectation of self-sufficiency. Edward Staples, President of the BC Rural Health network, observes that rural communities not only face “access issues” to mental health care but also have to contend with a common mentality along the lines of “I don’t need anyone’s help.” While hard work and independence can be powerful values, this myth of self-reliance seems likely to do more harm than good. Believing that you have to go it alone can take a tremendous toll. Moreover, such an attitude ignores that human beings, like all living creatures, exist as part of a larger ecosystem. Recognizing this connectivity and reaching out as needed should be seen for what it is: a courageous act of bridge-building.
Fighting isolation within rural and remote communities requires innovative solutions, and recent success stories indicate that flexible, informal, and place-based approaches tend to work well. Rather than fixate on the challenge, it may be more productive to maintain a positive focus on small opportunities for connection. As suggested by a recent policy brief from the Rural Health Research Centre at the University of Minnesota (2018), volunteer activities like joining a choir or other acts of community service can provide opportunities for bonding based on shared interests, without making the issue of loneliness front and centre. One initiative that has gained global traction since its inception in Australia is the concept of Men’s Sheds. These workshops counter the problem of male loneliness by providing a context for hands-on work with individual or community projects. Another approach involves forming intergenerational connections that connect youth and older adults in relationships of mutual support, such as the AGE to age initiatives that have seen much success throughout northeastern Minnesota. These examples suggest that the key is to think outside the box, to be creative and proactive in seeking opportunities for engagement.
As a growing number of voices join this conversation, we can find even more effective interventions. The social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increased challenges, yet it has also helped to shine a spotlight on this problem. In this moment of imagining a new post-pandemic reality, the time is ripe for action.
Check out the following initiatives that seek to promote mental health awareness and build community among rural populations in Canada: