The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health, particularly in rural America. These mental health struggles have taken on many forms.
Older adults in rural communities experienced increased risk of loneliness and isolation due to social distancing. Farmers faced more anxiety due to supply chain issues and outbreaks at processing plants. Medical providers who were already experiencing staffing shortages before the pandemic were even more stretched thin and experiencing burnout due to lack of resources. Teachers and students struggled with distance learning over unstable and often nonexistent rural internet connections.
Throughout the pandemic, most of us have been willing to do our part to stop the spread of COVID. We stayed home, wore masks, socially distanced ourselves, changed policies to protect workers against COVID, and many are now vaccinated. All of these pieces of action that we did, as organizations and citizens, have ultimately helped slow down the spread of the virus and reduced rates of severe illness and death. With that same willingness to help protect each other’s physical health, collective action is needed to support the mental health of people in rural communities.
A collective impact model is a strategic approach to addressing complex problems by mobilizing partnerships and resources in alignment toward a greater goal. It works like this: Bring together people from different sectors of the community around a table — for example, people from education, law enforcement, social services, elected officials and business. At this table, they have a common agenda to address a specific issue in their community. As they develop solutions, they agree on how to track progress toward their desired goals with shared measurements and mutually reinforcing activities.
A representative from a local backbone organization facilitates the conversations about the problems and follows up with the people at the table to help coordinate activities that collectively move the needle toward achieving the goal for the community. This facilitator keeps track of progress by collecting data on how the work is going and encourages communication across partners in the efforts in order to keep people accountable toward reaching their shared goal.
Continuous communication is vital to the success of collective impact efforts. If partners have a deep connection with one another, it makes people more excited to come to the table to work together and reach their desired goals for their community. Policymakers and local leaders investing in opportunities for rural places to create capacity in their community to collectively collaborate with others about mental health is vital to moving forward in a post-pandemic world.
The beauty of the collective impact is it can be tailored to the priorities, strengths and resources of communities. This model has been successfully used in many communities around the country to address things such as substance abuse, cradle to career outcomes and COVID-19 response. Through a collective impact approach, organizations and members of rural communities can commit and contribute to achieving the goal of better mental health outcomes through mutually reinforcing activities that are realistic for them.
For example, if members of rural community want to prioritize increasing access to mental health services, partners in education can focus on increasing access to school-based mental health programs for youth, while churches, libraries and community centers offer mental health educational training to community members in order to reduce stigma. The health care partners can work on incentivizing mental health providers to work in rural places or increasing local behavioral telehealth infrastructure, while law enforcement and social services can focus on resources to support those experiencing a mental health crisis. Each of these coordinated activities is continuously evaluated based on the shared data measurements and end up making an impact on the outcomes in a community in the long run.
Many rural communities already have organizations and people who are doing work related to mental health, but convening people to formally commit to improve mental health outcomes fosters more meaningful collaboration between community partners. Investing in collective impact models in rural communities makes sense because of the deep sense of connection that already exists.
In any collaboration it’s important to make sure all voices are heard and that vocal partners don’t overshadow the perspectives of those who are new to the table or have been historically marginalized. But as people become aligned to addressing the goal, it makes collaboration and communication more effective, even when working out differences of opinion. Often work across different sectors can be siloed, but when people intentionally align their efforts, the impact can be so much stronger.
It is worth noting that the greater impacts of COVID are far reaching, affecting the economy and showing the cracks in our public health infrastructure. There are so many issues that rural communities could prioritize as we transition into a “post-COVID” world, but mental health affects everyone and deserves to be a top priority.
If resources are put toward bettering mental health in rural spaces through strategic, intentional collaborative models, rural areas can demonstrate their resiliency and thrive.
Katie Rydberg is a Program Manager at the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center.