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Researchers taking community-based approach to rural mental health

Posted at 4:00 PM, Oct 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-08 18:25:02-04

Idaho has one of the highest suicide rates in the entire nation, and according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, many of those happen in our state's rural areas.

Dr. Clarissa Richardson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Idaho, has been studying mental health in Idaho's rural communities for years. Richardson hopes her research will lead toward solutions that will bring rural suicide rates down.

"The research shows you need to do community-based work. The community needs to be involved in the process," Richardson explained.

Richardson says there are multiple factors behind high suicide rates in rural areas. The stigma surrounding mental illness, ready access to firearms, a lack of mental health resources, and what Richardson calls a "rugged individualism" are all contributing factors.

"The idea that 'I can deal with this on my own, that I don't need to talk about this with anyone,'" Richardson explained. "We see these as risk factors in rural areas and so we think, 'Ok what can we do about that?'"

Richardson's focus on mental health in rural areas has centered around educating rural communities about mental health through community-based programs. The programs are a valuable tool, Richardson says, especially in areas where there aren't many resources for mental health.

"There's something special about rural communities is that they tend to be there for each other, but what individuals within rural communities struggle with is even though they want to help, they don't know how," Richardson said. "These (programs) have included programs from mental health first aid, to QPR, which is a suicide prevention program. We work directly within the community to have them implement these programs."

The idea is to educate the community on warning signs, and what to do if you see them.

"Mental health first aid teaches people how to understand what a mental health issue is and how to emphatically respond with understanding to someone who's struggling," Richardson explained. "That connection can actually decrease the risk of suicide."

The University of Idaho is working to expand the program to help rural communities statewide.