Mental Health in our Rural Communities (Part 3)
As parents, there is nothing we care about more than the health and well-being of our children.
Yet often, for both ourselves and our children, we de-prioritize mental health issues until as individuals or families, we are in crisis mode. We’re quite fortunate In Roseau County to have access to a good crisis response system, but hopefully just as you would aim to take care of your heart health before the muscle is in full crisis, so too should mental health be prioritized before something major happens.
“Mental illnesses don’t usually just come out of the blue,” said Jan Carr Herseth, LICSW and Director of Behavior Health at LifeCare Medical Center in Roseau. “There are things that are brewing, situations that are happening and you hope that somebody is recognizing that and taking some action.”
According to Herseth, almost every community across the country identifies mental health as one of the top priorities, and our schools were the first locations she listed when rattling off the the long list of organizations and businesses that are part of LifeCare’s broad community outreach program.
All school staff are mandated to have training in recognizing the basic symptoms of students in a mental health crisis, and people like Bridget Lindner and her peers in this field at the Warroad Public Schools are on the front lines of this work day in and day out with students.
“I see a lot of kids for issues with anxiety and depression,” said Lindner, LICSW and guidance counselor for Warroad High School. She works primarily with teenagers and acknowledges that the stress and pressures this segment faces are very real. “There is the academic pressure, the family pressure, the social pressure, romantic pressure. It’s like a boiling pot.
“It’s a unique time in life where you’re trying to sort so many things out. You don’t really know who you are yet as a person; it’s often your first romantic relationship, your first job and then balancing school and everything else.”
Lindner also explained a bit about the changing social pressures that teens and even younger children are facing now. A generation ago when kids left school for the day, there was a distinct difference between being socially “on” while at school and being in the safe, calm and consistent routines of home. Today, due to our 24/7 connectivity, there is almost no difference. Kids can be socially connected at all hours, and it appears to be taking a toll.
In an article on psychologytoday.com titled The Bad, the Ugly, and the Good of Kids’ Use of Social Media, Jim Taylor PH.D. said that “research from the past decade has found that adolescents who demonstrated Internet addiction scored higher for obsessive–compulsive behavior, depression, generalized and social anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, introversion, and other maladaptive behaviors.”
Taylor wrote that an analysis of 15 studies found that increased media exposure, including television, movies, video games, and the Internet, was associated with violent behavior and isolation. It reported that children who watched violent shows were not only more likely to be more aggressive, but also to have fewer friends and to be more secluded socially. The researchers concluded that children who are aggressive will have fewer friends and be more likely to be bullies (because they are more aggressive) or victims of bullying (because they are isolated).
“Another study of adolescent girls,” the article continued, “found that the more they used texting, instant messaging and other social media to discuss their problems, particularly romantic difficulties, the more depressive symptoms they presented. The researchers argued that the ease and frequency that technology affords children to communicate allows them to ‘co-ruminate,’ that is, dwell on their problems without providing any solutions.”
And this is where professionals like Lindner come in, as well as many other adults in our community. While LifeCare’s community outreach program can’t reach and train every parent, the hope is that enough people across the various interactive community structures and locations will have some level of training in place to help address issues before an individual reaches crisis mode. Small business owners, retail workers, law enforcement, HR reps from our local industry employers, people-managers and more are all being offered Mental Health First Aid training.
It is recognizeably true that most mental health problems left untreated in childhood become more difficult to treat in adulthood. And to be of help, we as adults must recognize our own needs for emotional and mental well-being. Indeed, it’s the first step in modelling and supporting healthy brain development and day-to-day functioning for our children.
Still, Herseth notes that if you live in a metropolitan area as compared to a rural community, “you don’t have to be as concerned about who’s going to see you at the clinic.” People are concerned about the perception of receiving mental health care. The stigmas seem to abound more in rural areas, likely buoyed by the lack of anonymity and who we are as rural folk. “They talk about ‘Minnesota Nice’,” Herseth said, “But they also talk about our heritage. It’s that story of our ancestors coming across, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, working hard, living poorly and that you didn’t have time to be worried about your feelings.”
These perceptions, these stigmas, when held strong and not questioned can often trickle down to our children with the most negative repercussions. And it can be the trickiest of battles for Lindner and her peers.
“It’s the lucky ones who have parents who will take them to get more support,” Lindner said. “When a family is not supportive, when they say ‘No, my child is not going to be seen by a provider or they’re not going on any medication or this isn’t an issue, they’re just being dramatic,’ when they really minimize that, it is one of the greatest challenges. I do feel like it’s the lucky ones who get support.”
Herseth reiterated the impact on our young people, both for children in contact with adults impacted by mental illness and for children suffering themselves. “Their whole world is going to look different than a child who has a parent that is more functional. Their perception of life is going to be different than a child who isn’t living in that situation,” she said. “We see a lot of children in our agency, and yes, there are children who have mental illnesses, but a lot of times what the child is reacting to is more of what’s going on in the home and is having a pretty expected reaction to what they are going through at home.
“Our therapists talk about this constantly. Yes, you can see the child, but it’s the work that you do with both the parents and the child that is going to make the biggest difference.”
Pastor Mary Gilthvedt of Zion Lutheran Church in Warroad understands first-hand the importance of the slow and steady race towards new, more positive beliefs and away from the negative stigmas around receiving care for mental health concerns. “What I find as a pastor is that it takes a long time to build trust. I suspect what the needs are but until people are open with me, I’m just speculating. Alcohol abuse or depression, other mental health issues, people need to know they can trust the person they’re talking to.”
So, what is the solution? What can the average layperson do? What can we as a community do? What are we already doing? As Representative Dan Fabian said, “There is no one solution. There is no magic pill. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Next week, we’ll explore solutions, helpful programs, tools, social structures and more that can help both individuals and communities better address the very valid concerns of mental health. Herseth likens a mental health disability to any physical disability. The impacts on the family and community can be vast and disruptive, even catastrophic. But there are almost always symptoms present. Let’s look more closely at what we can do to get better at recognizing these symptoms and lessening the negative stigmas in getting help.
Averting crisis, avoiding chaos, providing a safe, calm and consistent environment for our kids AND for ourselves…it can’t happen unless we recognize the issue at hand and get help as needed, regardless of the stigmas. Safe, calm and consistent is the way forward, the way home, the way to win this race, this marathon.
Part 1: What’s Eating Rural America?
(Published in the February 6th, 2018 issue of the Warroad Pioneer)