Rural Oregon facing mental health issues alone

East Oregonian, June 4, 2014

Eastern Oregon is not immune to the dangers of mental illness.

But it does have a dearth of mental health professionals.

And that can exacerbate the problem — when people in need don’t seek help and there are a lack of professionals available to serve those who do.

For example, according to the Oregon Psychiatric Association, the number of dedicated child psychologists operating east of the Cascades is in the single digits while hundreds operate in Portland alone.

Yes, we all know Portlanders who need plenty of professional counseling — that traffic and bad fashion can’t help — but there is a real need in rural Oregon as well. And that need is not currently being met.

There are stigmas on both sides that are currently keeping the needy and the providers apart.

First, the stigma in seeking mental health care. No one would ever fault someone seeking treatment for a broken leg or a serious disease, but we can begrudge or look down on a person seeking treatment for their mental well-being.

They could be shunned by their families, friends and neighbors, wrongly thought to be a danger to society at worst, or a bad party guest at best.

They can be considered “mentally weak” when we wouldn’t dare consider that person with a fractured fibula as “leg weak.”

Slowly, society is trying to be more accepting of those with mental illness. Science and medicine are helping, too, with more treatment options that allow sufferers to be themselves, as well as productive members of the world around them.

But there is also a stigma on the other side of the coin. Professionals who achieve years of higher education in order to be a licensed clinician are rarely willing to move to smaller cities. They face significant financial burdens, but they also face being stigmatized from colleagues who wonder what skeleton in the closet they are running from.

If you aren’t in the bigger urban areas, colleagues just don’t think you are up to snuff or are suspect for embracing a place where you can be isolated. That certainly isn’t true. In order to run a successful operation in rural America, you must have a wider variety of skills than are required in larger population areas. And everyone knows the scrutiny in small towns can be just as strong —if not stronger — than any metropolitan area.

We hope both sides find some middle ground: that more specialists and subspecialists make time for rural Oregon, locate their practice here or set aside time to help rural patients via telephone or videoconferencing.

And we also hope rural Oregonians can shed the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. We should feel free to seek help if we need it and also remain supportive and inclusive of people suffering from mental illness.