Organizations must tackle mental health challenges in rural America

Editor’s note: This commentary explores suicide. If you are at risk, please stop here and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for assistance at 1-800-273-8255.

When country music legend Naomi Judd tragically passed away on April 30, it was a sobering reminder of the many who struggle with mental health issues in rural America. Like millions of his other fans, many of whom grew up listening to Judd’s music like myself, I was devastated to hear the news of his untimely death after his courageous and public journey living with mental illness. In addition to recognizing September as Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to note that suicide rates among people living in rural counties are 25% higher than those of large metropolises.

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Jeff Winton

Judd’s death underscores that it doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer in Kansas, a rancher in Texas, or a country music star, mental health issues affect many, many people who live and work in rural America. And, sadly, the stigma of seeking help seems to be alive and well, especially in rural areas.

I remember seeing Naomi speak openly about her pain and her lifelong battle with depression on the show “TODAY” in 2017. Naomi said she was trying to start a national conversation about depression and anxiety. She identified herself as “just a little country singer” out of 43 million people with depression and anxiety.

My beloved nephew, Brooks Winton, committed suicide 10 years ago because, like so many others in small towns and remote areas of our country, he kept his suffering to himself and for some reason whatever, couldn’t bring himself to ask for help. That’s why in October 2021, I founded rural spirits, a non-profit organization that aims to end the suffering, silence, and stigma surrounding mental illness in rural America. Our mission is to be the informed voice of mental health in rural America and to provide mental health information and resources. There are several established organizations that provide excellent mental health information and services, but Rural Minds is the only non-profit organization focused entirely on addressing mental health issues in rural communities nationwide.

Since July 16, people in mental health crisis nationwide have been able to call for help via an easy-to-remember three-digit dialing code, 998, which replaces the 10-digit National Suicide phone number. Prevention Lifeline.

As Founder and President of Rural Minds, I consider it my responsibility to continue the conversation about mental illness that Naomi referenced in that interview five years ago. I am saddened to think that while trying to help others with mental illness, Naomi herself – like my nephew and so many others in rural America – could not get the help she needed.

Although mental health is imperative for overall health, some people do not recognize mental illness as an illness. On the contrary, it is sometimes perceived as a character flaw or a personal weakness. Mental illness is a disease, just like cancer or diabetes. And just like many other illnesses, the person who is ill is not responsible for contracting the illness. Much of the stigma surrounding mental illness can be rooted in misdirected and unfair shame that can be an added burden for someone who already suffers from mental illness.

Research shows us that even the simple act of sharing stories can be an essential first step for people to find help for their own mental health issues. It is my hope as I honor the life and passing of Naomi Judd. Our hearts and prayers go out to her daughters and the millions of people who loved her and considered her a friend like us. More information about Rural Minds is available on our website, ruralminds.org.

Jeff Winton is the founder and president of Rural Minds Inc.

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