Foresight Health CEO Sameer Suhail, center, with Sean Adkins, director of economic development at Patrick County (left) and Joseph Hylak-Reinholtz, Foresight’s chief operations officer. Photo courtesy of Foresight Health.

A potato farmer in Idaho, a coal miner in West Virginia, and a rancher in Texas – what could these three individuals possibly have in common? On the surface, the three workers listed seem vastly different in geographical location, potential salaries, and cultural upbringing, but one common theme links them. The challenge of mental health is not relegated to a specific subset of people; it touches us all. And especially for those located in rural areas, the stigma of mental illness shouts through the deafening silence of those seeking care.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health in 2020 showed that nearly 53 million – almost one in five – adults live with mental illness in the United States. Of those suffering from this disease, rural residents are more likely to experience a serious mental health illness, with suicide rates among people in rural counties being nearly twice as high compared to those in major metropolitan areas.

Mental health is essential to an individual’s overall health. Unfortunately, some people do not recognize mental illness as a disease. The thing a person may struggle with the most may be perceived as some kind of chink in the armor or inadequacy. Simply put, mental illness is an illness – one that can be as devastating as cancer or heart disease. Just like with many other disorders, the person who is ill is not responsible for the ailment they face. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental illness is bound to the misdirected and unfair shame that becomes an added burden for someone who is already suffering.

Individuals in rural areas often have demanding, blue-collar jobs, which can be exacerbated by economic uncertainty, vulnerability to weather, and labor concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic caused even more stress to the social life of these people by disrupting their everyday routines. Being unable to attend a church service or gather with friends for breakfast at the local diner led to an increased sense of loneliness. Through all this, men and women in these areas are still less likely to seek help from a healthcare professional to assist with their mental health.

One of the best ways we can confront rural America’s healthcare crisis is by building a better system of care for people suffering from mental illnesses. Professionals in healthcare and government officials need to do a better job of integrating mental health services with primary care to ensure everyone has the ability to receive the treatment they need. 

This is exactly the driving force behind Foresight’s investment in the Patrick County hospital. For too long, individuals in the community have been neglected in the care they receive – specifically in mental healthcare. We are striving to create an atmosphere where every individual knows they are cared for. Providing critical access to care in an area where they currently do not exist is one of the first – and main – steps in the continual improvement of the healthcare system in Patrick County and Southside Virginia and rebuilding trust with the residents who may have felt forgotten.

Inputting systems that build trust between primary care providers and their patients while adding crucial support from a trained behavioral health care specialist is a critical element in aiding rural communities. In a familiar setting, patients can benefit from a full range of mental health treatment options. Providing medication, offering behavioral therapy, and tracking patient progress through a psychiatric consultant are tools in combatting this ever-prevalent battle. Being at the forefront of technological advancements and delivering innovative solutions allow medical professionals to gain a foothold on potential treatment options.

It is imperative that the stigma of mental illness in rural areas is dispelled and that quality mental healthcare services are provided to the individuals located there. Individuals with mental illness should not have to suffer in silence or feel like they are alone. Our focus should start by opening the conversation about mental illness, but it shouldn’t end there. To address this crisis, we must also invest in proven healthcare approaches and start providing the help that so many people need. There are no silver bullets or magic words that will halt the issues we face; the healthcare industry must put in the work. More Americans than ever are facing the realities of mental illness; now is the time for us to reshape our communities and our nation’s mental health care future.

Sameer Suhail

Suhail is the President and CEO of Foresight Health, which is in the process of opening a hospital in Patrick County.