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Rural Health Information Hub

Sustainability Strategies for Rural Mental Health Programs

Common sustainability strategies for programs related to rural mental health are reducing stigma, improving patient retention, building workforce capacity, developing partnerships, documenting and disseminating outcomes, and ensuring program adaptability.

Reducing Stigma

Rural communities can create sustainable mental health programs by fostering supportive communities to counter stigma. Raising awareness about mental health conditions can decrease stigma, which may help patients feel more comfortable seeking ongoing treatment. For more information about mental health stigma in rural communities, see Module 4.

Improving Patient Retention

Supporting patients' ability to consistently access appropriate and consistent care improves patient retention and in turn supports sustainable rural mental health programs. Patient retention also helps ensure stable reimbursement for mental health programs and avoids the financial costs to providers of missed appointments.

Program staff play an important role in patient retention. If staff are able to establish supportive, therapeutic relationships, patients are more likely to be engaged in their care. Some strategies for developing a strong provider-client relationship include building rapport and trust, responding empathetically, and communicating effectively.

Building Workforce Capacity

Building workforce capacity and improving staff retention in rural areas is an important way to create sustainable mental health programs. Given the mental health professional shortages and challenges with staff retention faced by rural mental health programs, it is important to invest in program staff and build up their capacity while there is funding. Additionally, investing in training volunteers can be an important asset in building workforce capacity, especially with limited funding. Rural programs can develop and deliver community education and workforce trainings that transfer knowledge of program activities and establish curriculums that can be used for future efforts.

For more information on mental health workforce considerations and strategies for recruiting and retaining mental health professionals, see Module 4.

Developing Partnerships

Partners can support the success of a rural mental health program by filling gaps in services, offering in-kind donations — like the use of space in local buildings — or disseminating program offerings to their audience. Establishing new partnerships and strengthening existing partnerships can help build capacity, foster community buy-in, and support program sustainability. For more information about rural mental health partnerships, see Module 4.

Documenting and Disseminating Outcomes

It is important for rural mental health programs to evaluate their programs, document outcomes, and disseminate program achievements. By sharing outcomes and lessons learned, programs can make the case for the continued need for the program and increase buy-in and investment from partners, policymakers, and payers.

For more information about evaluating rural mental health programs, see Module 5.

For more information on dissemination methods, see Module 7.

Ensuring Program Adaptability

Establishing a program that is adaptable and flexible helps support program sustainability despite internal and external changes. Some changes communities may experience include shifts in populations of focus, changes to workforce needs, new funding requirements, and new partnerships. Some programs may choose to replicate or expand the services offered to different populations or communities as a sustainability strategy. Programs interested in expanding their reach can create materials that support replication and share lessons learned.