As policymakers, mental health advocates and practitioners mobilize once again to elevate the gravity of mental illness during Mental Illness Awareness Week, they need to shed light on a troubling reality: individuals in our rural communities face the most glaring gaps in availability, and access to, high-quality behavioral healthcare.
Consider that 4 in 5 Americans with a substance use disorder are left with little access to life-saving treatment, citing lack of public transportation options and considerable distances to care. In 65% of nonmetropolitan counties, where the effects of the opioid epidemic are most significantly felt, residents cannot access a psychiatrist—and that proportion dips just slightly to half when accounting for access to psychologists. As a result, emergency rooms in rural hospital systems are largely left with the burden of care, even while they may lack the proper systems to support patients with mental health issues.
These factors all have propelled the rural suicide rate in the U.S. on an alarming upward trend over the past 14 years, increasing at a rate nearly double that of urban areas. Rates of drug overdoses continue to surpass those in metro areas. And research continues to document the additional barriers that unaddressed mental illness places on rural youths’ academic and postsecondary prospects.
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