Mental Health in our Rural Communities (Part 2)
As children, we are dependent on our parents, and as aging adults at the end of our lives we are often dependent on our children. Conversely, the chapter between those two phases is characterized by independence. And yet adulthood is actually the time in our lives when we experience the most hardship, the most intellectual challenges, the most loss, and the most mental anguish.
For a large majority of us, we were never prepared to deal with these situations. No one teaches us how to go through divorce, handle depression, support a family member through addiction, bury our parents or worse, a child and keep on living through the grief.
During adulthood we need our “village” more than ever, and yet it’s drilled into us that we must bootstrap our way through life, going it alone. Many of us find our people, our village through work. And here in rural northern Minnesota, we are fortunate to have two large companies, Marvin’s Windows and Doors and Polaris. Both place a tremendous amount of value on the well-being of their people. Marvin’s employs just over 2,000 people and Polaris 1,450.
That is nearly 3,500 adults, 23% of the wider Roseau County community (population 15,770), who have access to the best physical and mental health benefits this rural area has to offer. Of course, that’s not counting the number of city, county and state employees in our area who are empowered through their benefits, nor the many small and midsize businesses that stretch themselves thin to provide resources for their people.
Now more than ever, we as businesses, officials and individuals are aware of the need for an intense focus on our mental and emotional well-being. Ask the Millennials; they’ll create you a meme in minutes to tell the story that “adulting is hard” and “the struggle is real.”
The mental health of our adults matters in every regard. Without a sense of positive well-being, quality of life decreases. Families are strained and often torn apart. Dependent children and older adults suffer. Chemical dependencies come into play more often. Domestic disputes increase. Stress, anxiety and depression can lead to rage, isolation, and a whole host of mild to extremely serious health disorders. Distracted driving increases. On-the-job accidents increase. Connections on all levels of our families and our community are damaged. The very social structure of humanity begins to break down.
In truth, there is nothing that is not impacted by the mental health of our adults.
Our businesses get it. Our health professionals get it. And our leaders get it. “I think that everyone realizes that we have a significant mental health problem,” State Representative Dan Fabian said. “I’ve talked to mental health professionals. I’ve talked to law enforcement. I’ve talked to county commissioners…finding an answer is the “$64 Million question.
“Unfortunately, there is no magic pill. There is no one solution,” he said, which is why he vocally applauds the work that a number of employers are doing in our area.
Polaris Human Resources Manager Tony Pekarek detailed the extensive health benefits his company offers. Employees and their families can take advantage of reimbursement for personal training or gym memberships, sleep management programs, stress management, tobacco cessation, on-the-job safety initiatives, lifestyle coaching, and extensive family and behavioral health services, including day treatments, group therapy or more intensive outpatient services. There are also inpatient benefits available for psychiatric treatment, chemical dependencies, emotional disabilities and supervised lodging for travel. Through their Employee Assistance Program, people can get referrals to resources in all number of specialized physical and mental health fields, even financial counseling, personal counseling, domestic dispute resolution and so on.
Polaris is currently running a program called Destination Healthy, which consists of voluntary wellness tracking to help employees monitor their own health indexes, like BMI and blood pressure, for example. From there, people choose their own health path and are incentivized to participate fully. “Incentivizing people is a step towards them owning their own well-being, making healthy lifestyle choices and understanding how these are tied,” Pekarek said.
He also explained the many ways his team raises awareness of both the importance of personal well-being and what resources employees have at their fingertips. Twice-yearly health fairs for all shifts, plant-wide meetings, outside speakers, informational bulletin boards and incentives to learn and education themselves have all helped grow awareness among employees.
But despite company-wide efforts, many people still balk at taking advantage of the benefits. A recently-retired Polaris employee who wished to remain anonymous commented that everyone went to the meetings, saw the posters and even the private fliers in the restrooms. “We knew what was out there,” he said, “but I was just too busy in everyday life to stop and think about doing any of those things.”
Awareness of the importance of mental health grew slowly over the last century and only in the last few decades has it reached the level of mainstream conversation and governmental regulation that we see today. As all variety of social upheaval continues, individual uptake – finding the time to prioritize one’s own mental health – must become the focus.
The key is placing the ownership in the hands of each adult, according to our local professionals.
“We can do everything we can to educate and make people aware, getting these programs in front of them. But actually picking up the phone, going to the clinic, taking a step with a personal trainer, whatever it is, that’s on them. I can’t hold their hand,” Pekarek said. “My biggest concern is that people are not taking these programs seriously. This stuff is very important. It’s your life. It’s your wellness. It’s everything.”
Going the extra mile for its people is nothing new for Marvin Windows and Doors either. With benefits similar to those of Polaris, the company also maintains dedicated office space for employees to schedule meetings with an in-person counselor through the Employee Assistance Program where they can discuss all aspects of mental, physical and family health, get referrals and recommendations, and simply learn more in a private setting. They’ve also recently partnered with an organization called Learn to Live, which offers online cognitive behavioral health solutions to employees and their families at no extra cost.
The significance of the online offering is timely. “Our research tells us that many individuals who could benefit from treatment will not seek help face-to-face,” 15-year Marvin’s veteran Tony Jensen said. Jensen is the Director of Total Rewards, a program that encompasses the full investment The Marvin Companies make in their employees. “This partnership with Learn to Live bridges a gap to meet an employee where they are in their level of comfort to seek help,” he said.
Safe-space programs that meet people where they are both location-wise and comfort-level wise are a critical next step in meeting the needs of rural communities. Mental health professionals can continue to encourage personal ownership of one’s well-being, but if the resources simply don’t exist in a specific area, uptake will continue to be low.
“We fight so hard for our employees to get access to the resources they need,” Polaris’ Pekarek said. “Even if it’s by phone because of our rural location. And if we need to make a large modification, we will fight for that too.”
Representative Fabian acknowledge the challenges as well. “I do not like pitting rural Minnesota against the metro area, but there are some very real examples of where that disparity exists, and this is one of them,” he said. “If you live in Roseau or Hallock and you have to go to Duluth for care, that’s 200 or 300 miles.”
And while rural communities may bear an extra burden because of geography, the access problem is pervasive. “From a mental health perspective, there is a lack of accessibility and providers nationwide,” Jensen said. “So, this issue is not limited to rural areas.”
Rural or urban, what’s important is that we keep talking about it. “It’s all about people. It’s all about human beings. It’s about life. It’s about quality of life,” Representative Fabian said. “I don’t want people to not have a good quality of life. I don’t want families to be torn apart by mental health issues. That’s why to me it’s important. It’d be easy to say ‘ah, it happened to somebody else over in some other part of the county or some other part of the state,’ but the reality is that it’s right here impacting our friends and neighbors, my friends and my neighbors”
Ultimately, what it comes down to for rural communities is the sense of community itself. By taking advantage of their mental health benefits to better manage their own well-being, people like the employees at Marvin’s and Polaris don’t just take care of themselves and their families; they are impacting and caring for their community as a whole. It’s the truth of that old airline safety spiel coming into play yet again. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Make the time for personal-care in order to make your village that tiny bit healthier.
The village can then, in turn, take better care of everyone else.
(Next week in our series: How mental health concerns are impacting our youth.)
Part 1 What’s Eating Rural America?
Part 4 The New Normal
(Published in the January 30th, 2018 issue of the Warroad Pioneer)