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Rural Mental Health Project - Shifting From What’s Wrong to What’s Strong to Build a Mentally Resilient Rural Alberta

When we talk about mental health, many people only think about mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, but the Rural Mental Health Project is challenging these assumptions to build strong, resilient rural communities. Social connections, supportive livelihoods, culture, and the environment are all integral to community mental health, as are the passionate community members the Project supports.



What makes a community healthy looks different in different places, just as mental health means different things to different people. But, how do we promote mentally healthy communities across these different places, when everyone has their own idea of how it should look? We met with Jessica Turowski, Manager of the Rural Mental Project, an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association Alberta Division. We wanted to learn more about how the Project creates mentally healthier communities throughout rural Alberta and Jessica’s perspective on how to harness community strengths to realize this objective.

“Our goal is to build local capacity in rural communities, to be able to take collaborative actions and steps that help advance rural community mental health. We also provide provincial-level support to communities to increase and improve access and coordination of other things that are available in the province, as well as continue connection for rural communities working together or learning from each other.”

The Rural Mental Health Project is designed around three main pillars:

  • Capacity building and training of Community Animators to identify and bring together community partners to define priorities and actions for improving local mental health

  • A network to facilitate inter-community connections and continuous learning

  • Grant streams and funding that help communities implement their shared goals


Where We Live and What We Feel: Our Environment Impacts Our Mental Health

Where we live and how we live in that space are directly connected to our well-being. Where we live includes our built environment—the colours of our walls, the furniture or decorations in our home, and access to services—and it can include the social supports around us.

“There’s a long-established connection between people’s immediate well-being and for example, having a plant in a room. You can actually measure an improvement from people in a room without a plant to people in a room with a plant.”

Our geography, weather patterns, and natural environments can also significantly impact our health. “We know that access to nature in very small ways still has measurable impacts on our well-being,” Jessica says. When communities build parks, gardens, and walking trails, “you know your community is well or what is building your community’s wellness in terms of dealing with stress reduction, improving well-being, and quality of life.”


Eco-Anxiety and Ecological Grief

In terms of climate change and climate adaptation, many populations may be experiencing a phenomenon called ecological grief or eco-anxiety, whereby environmental change and loss are causing a sense of bereavement and/or worry about the future.


“A lot of people are going to their psychologists or counsellors, and talking about their heightened levels of depression and anxiety, because of all of the things we’re watching and have no control over.” Jessica tells us, “the anxiety and depression farmers are facing has been significant. There’s more and more discussion about how [rates of death by suicide in the farming community] is connected to unpredictable weather patterns.” Across Canada, stress (45%), depression (35%), anxiety (58%), and burnout among farmers are routinely higher than in the general population (Tait & Leeder, 2019).


So where does the Project fit in addressing mental health concerns throughout rural Alberta?


To Animate: What Do Community Animators Do?


The Rural Mental Health Project's third cohort of Community Animators to undergo training
The Rural Mental Health Project's third cohort of Community Animators to undergo training.

The Rural Mental Health Project’s Community Animators play a central role in starting the conversation around mental health. They can be anyone who has an interest in serving their community. Family and Community Support Services staff, farmers, fire chiefs, teachers, librarians, and others have become leaders in the mental health conversation.


Animator isn’t a title you often hear when discussing mental health, but it perfectly describes what these community members do. So what is the role of a Community Animator?

“The term animate confuses a lot of people, but when you think about what an Animator does in terms of an animated movie, they take a still image and they add colour, movement, environment, and interactions. What we see Community Animators doing is bring life, movement, action, and colour into a conversation around ‘how do we work together’ and ‘what does a mentally healthy community means to us’.”

When community members choose to become an Animator, they become a facilitator for change for community wellness and mental health. The solutions they design with their Action Teams (other champions) are locally-based, and more directly meet the needs and goals of the people living there.


A common complaint about mental health funding and/or external mental health professionals that “parachute in” to a community, is that they do not understand the actual needs of that community. The Project does away with this prescriptive, top-down, attitude by enlisting locals who are passionate about enacting change. They take a strengths-based approach to their work—asking the community members they are working with to build their initiatives with the question ‘what’s strong in my community?’, instead of ‘what’s wrong in my community?’.


The four buckets of activity Community Animators may pursue:

  1. The first step is to identify what support and resources already exist. Animators, in this bucket, are responsible for doing the discovery work in their communities and building relationships.

  2. Awareness building and using the common language for mental health is a second step. Not all communities are ready to talk about mental health specifically, but they may care about stress reduction or well-being. It’s important, Jessica reminds us, to meet the community where it’s at in the mental health dialogue.

  3. Animators can formally engage stakeholders in conversations about community strengths/weaknesses. Using surveys or word of mouth, an Animator can assess who may be interested in a mental health action team. Many community members may be passionate about improving wellness, and this is their opportunity to get involved!

  4. Finally, when an Animator has built a strong foundation, they enter the action phase. In the action phase, Animators may utilize funds to implement the ideas the community identified. Whether this means opening a wellness center or installing walking paths, it’s important the community decides what its priorities are.


These four buckets of activity are supported by the Rural Mental Health Project’s training, which teaches Animators how to ask questions and engage the community they’re living in. “The goal of our training isn’t to be prescriptive and tell people what to do or not to do. This is meant to be a sort of different attitude of how do we do this together.”


To learn more about the different ways community Animators have engaged their community, visit the Community Stories page on the Rural Mental Health Project’s website!


Resources, Strengths, and Community Set Rural Apart from Urban

Many differences exist between rural and urban areas. While urban areas may offer a wider variety of resources and easier access in terms of distance and time, rural communities have the advantage of a built-in ‘grit mentality’. “They’ve built capacity and confidence already, and that’s given a lot of rural strength for sure,” Jessica says when considering the differences between rural and urban contexts.


Barriers can also act as opportunities. While urban resources are often siloed or set apart from one another, rural communities have the advantage of collaboration and cooperation. When we focus on what has already been done together, we are capable of tackling larger challenges and building a stronger community.


It’s this sense of community that makes the Rural Mental Health Project work. Community members themselves are training to become Animators, and in turn, they support mental health conversations and resources at the local level.


On the other hand, the mental health discussion is at different stages in different places. While stress and well-being may be commonly used terms, discussions about mental illness may still be shrouded in stigma. This stigma can be a challenge when moving mental health dialogue forward, while also protecting critical relationships. Therefore, it’s critical for Animators to discover and speak their community’s mental health language—common terms and phrases their community identifies with and wants to pursue. Whether the term is mental health, wellness, or something else altogether.


The Project teaches Community Animators tools that can be applied in their own communities.

Rural Mental Health To Rural Resilience

We know rural communities have all the makings to be resilient in the face of whatever challenges arise. When we asked Jessica how mental health and resiliency are connected, she said “mental health is not just the absence of mental illness, it also includes the things that help us build well-being and resiliency, [such as] our social connections, our livelihoods, our culture, our natural and built environments.”


When we are resilient, we are better able to cope with stressors, whether they are personal or environmental. We have better mental health. Similarly, strong mental health is associated with more resiliency.

“[Resiliency] doesn’t mean we don’t face issues, it means people have the confidence and the capacity to be able to endure and overcome those challenges. A resilient community is also one that supports mental health.”

How Rural Communities Are Supporting Well-Being

Some unique service challenges exist in rural communities, depending on where they are located and how they have been developed. Access to mental health resources, particularly clinical counselling, is a significant barrier preventing some people from receiving the support they need. Driving to an urban center for services isn’t always feasible when we consider time, mode of transport, distance, and cost—even when it’s the only option.


Considering well-being holistically, incorporating biological, psychological, social, and spiritual influences, we find many more local levers for action that rural communities can take advantage of.


Walking trails, community events, and open dialogues about wellness can help promote and facilitate a better understanding of community strengths. When we shift our focus to our strengths, as opposed to the gaps that may exist, we further foster resiliency.


Community Animators are responsible for doing this discovery work, finding where community resilience can be bolstered, and utilizing grants to make these goals come to life. These actions can include anything from promoting kindness to improving mental health awareness and preparedness, to community initiatives on nutrition, and much more.


Mental Health: The Biopsychosocial-spiritual Model

Mental illness is a relatively new term, and there is still debate about how to diagnose and treat mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. The biopsychosocial-spiritual model helps us consider mental health holistically.


  • Biology: many parts of our body are pre-programmed by genetics. When one of those programs falters, such as the regulation of hormones, it can cause a mental illness. Anti-depressants address mental illness by targeting biological factors.

  • Psychology: our mental health is impacted by the way we see the world around us. Is the world dangerous? Does what we do matter? These factors can impact mental health. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) targets these thought patterns and perceptions.

  • Social Influences: humans are social creatures, and who we surround ourselves with can greatly influence our wellness. Toxic or dangerous situations can have long-lasting impacts on our well-being, as does who we spend time with.

  • Spirituality/Religion: a positive spiritual relationship can act as a protective factor for mental health and community, and improve our view of the world. It can also help us connect with our natural environment, and manage our stress levels.


The Foundation of Kindness in Devon, Alberta

Heather Acres, one of many Community Animators of the Rural Mental Health Project, believes in the importance of addressing mental health at a community level. As a Community Development Facilitator, she has been instrumental in developing the Virtues Project with the community of Devon, Alberta.


A sense of belonging and kindness were repeatedly identified by youth as important to them, and the community’s youths were key to implementing kindness initiatives and webinars in the Town.


Heather is looking forward to enhancing community roles and involvement in the future.


Aware and Prepared: Hinton, Alberta’s Goal of Support

Community Animator, Charlene Sitar, has sought a different approach to mental health in Alberta’s communities.


Recognizing that many business owners have faced increased stress during the pandemic, Charlene started her community animation by engaging the business sector to identify needs. She then worked to bridge the gaps and build awareness of what community supports already existed.


By increasing awareness of resources among the business community, Charlene has helped prepare residents of Hinton, Alberta in case they recognize the effects of mental illness on themselves or their loved ones. This greater level of preparedness will help ensure a quicker response to meeting mental health needs as they arise.


Claresholm, Alberta: A Five-Year Plan

Things look a little more structured in Claresholm, Community Animator Gabrielle Kirk, shares. After surveying her community, she found that feelings of isolation were common, as were gaps in service knowledge.


Since then, she and the community created a five-year plan, aiming to introduce music therapy, a community health speaker series, and focus on community nutrition and food security.


Stronger Together: A Resilient Community Requires Everyone

A recurring theme in our conversation with Jessica, as well as in the efforts of Community Animators, is the need to engage all people in a community when promoting wellness.


When we asked why this was the case, Jessica said, “I’ll use a scallop analogy – a scallop is a circle that has eyes all around it. One of the advantages of having a 360-degree vision is if a predator comes, any one of those eyes can see that it coming, so you can protect yourself and do something about it. If you are ignoring some of the voices or some of the eyes in your community, you’re at greater risk, because there are experiences that aren’t being communicated, so nothing can happen about it.”


This isn’t to say community engagement is an easy task—in many communities, there are populations with a shared and sometimes tense history—but it is a necessary task. Healing does not happen in a day, but Community Animators play an essential role in discovering what is needed to start that thousand-step journey to promoting rural resilience.



 

Reference

Carrie Tait & Jessica Leeder. (2019). “With high stress, anxiety and depression, 40 per cent of Canadian farmers uneasy about seeking help.” The Globe and Mail. Retrieved June 13, 2022 from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-with-high-stress-anxiety-and-depression-40-per-cent-of-canadian/.


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