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Factors That Impact Mental Health in Rural Areas

SAMHSA's To Live to See the Great Day That Dawns identifies 4 factors that impact mental health in rural areas:

  • Protective factors help to promote good mental health and make it less likely for mental health conditions to emerge or become problematic. Protective factors include:
    • Family and community support
    • Social coping and problem-solving skills
    • Economic security
    • Parental supervision
    • Stable home life
  • Risk factors cause individuals to be at great risk for developing certain mental health conditions. Risk factors include:
    • Family history of mental health problems
    • Chronic medical conditions
    • Lack of parental involvement
    • Lack of available resources
    • Traumatic experience
    • Social isolation
    • Past abuse or neglect
  • Environmental factors relate to an individual's surroundings and greatly affect mental health outcomes. Environmental factors include:
    • Local policies and practices
    • Community relations
    • Community attitudes or stigma
    • Access to mental health services and resources
    • Demographic shifts
  • Situational factors concern an individual's social surroundings that can increase or buffer mental health risks.

Understanding the influences of protective, risk, environmental, and situational factors surrounding community members will help determine the specific needs of each rural community.

These factors are especially important to consider when serving rural communities. Lack of resources related to poverty and limited educational opportunities are risk factors for developing mental health conditions. Overall, rural populations have lower median household incomes, levels of employment, and educational attainment than the general populace. Lack of available resources is a risk factor for worsening mental health symptoms.

Individuals in rural areas have higher rates of death by suicide in comparison to the general population, and mental health conditions can be a risk factor to suicide. Suicide rates may also be seen as an environmental factor because a suicide may lead to a suicide cluster, which is a large number of suicides in one region. Mental health conditions can also run in the family, so family health history can be a risk factor to developing a mental health disorder.

Rural communities are also unique because a higher percentage of the population is over 65. Since older individuals often face significant life changes, such as changes in health, loss of a spouse or partner, and decreased independence, they may be at higher risk for mental health conditions.

Social isolation is identified above as a risk factor contributing to mental health problems. Because rural communities are smaller, individuals may be at a higher risk of social isolation. Further, individuals may face geographic isolation, which may exacerbate mental health conditions.

Resources to Learn More

Social Determinants of Mental Health
Document
Discusses the social determinants of mental health, which are the factors outside of health that impact mental health, such as social, economic, and physical factors.
Organization(s): World Health Organization, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Date: 2014

To Live To See the Great Day That Dawns: Preventing Suicide by American Indian and Alaska Native Youth and Young Adults
Document
Discusses several factors, including risk and protective factors, related to suicide in the American Indian and Alaskan Native youth population.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Date: 2010