New research from the University of Guelph is taking a closer look at the impact of the pandemic on rural communities – starting with mental health – with an eye on improving public policy.
Dr. Leith Deacon, professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, grew up in a rural northern Ontario community and now resides in another, near Guelph.
The pandemic upended many facets of life, some of which changed under government guidelines. Economic and social disruptions can have lasting effects on employment, income and working conditions that negatively impact mental health.
For Deacon, it begged the question, would rural communities feel the same impact of the pandemic as urban areas? As responses to COVID began to roll out in early 2020, would these solutions be feasible for rural communities that seemed more suited to urban populations?
“The experiences of rural populations are different,” Deacon said. “I felt there was no research being done that exclusively focused on rural-based communities related to COVID-19. I thought that was a gap.”
With support from the University’s COVID-19 Research Development and Catalyst Fund, Deacon said, “We designed a project to get that information.”
Mental health decreased in rural communities
The pilot study, published in The Canadian Geographer, gleaned information through 3,496 surveys, both digital and hand-delivered in Perth and Huron County, to ensure researchers were connecting authentically with as much of the rural population as possible.
Participants were asked to assess their mental health at three specific times: before the pandemic (before March 1, 2020); since the start of the pandemic (after March 1, 2020); and forecasting for when the pandemic is over.
The surveys were purposely designed to be as broad and accessible as possible. Researchers used familiar terms like “worry” instead of “anxiety” and found engagement across a wide range of demographics.
“We wanted to make sure the questions asked didn’t simply answer one question,” Deacon explained. “We wanted this to be as broad and useful as possible.”
The surveys were reviewed by an advisory committee comprising people representing the non-profit sector, service provision organizations, local governments and health units.
“The information we gathered really highlighted the impact of COVID on rural residents,” he added.
Data collected between August and November 2020 showed:
- 10 per cent decrease in participants who said their mental health was “excellent”
- 12 per cent decrease in people who said their mental health was “good”
- 7 per cent increase in people who said their mental health was “satisfactory”
- 6 per cent increase in people who said their mental health was “poor”
In rural communities where there are heightened rates of gender-based violence, substance abuse and child abuse, it is notable that women reported an 88 per cent decrease in mental health.
That is an important data point, Deacon said.
Participants under the age of 50 were found to have experienced the most significant impact, according to the data, particularly people aged 18-29. More than 16 per cent reported their mental health as “poor” since the start of the pandemic, compared to 2.5 per cent of people aged 60 and over.
The largest employment sectors represented in the survey were health care and social services (22.3 per cent), agriculture (16.5 per cent) and education (9.6 per cent). The decline in mental health of farmers and others working in agriculture has been well-documented over the course of the pandemic, as other studies suggest.
Rural communities integral to urban life, require needs-based resources
Ontario’s rural communities comprise 10 to 19 per cent of the province’s population. Many of them have less access to digital infrastructure like broadband high-speed Internet, meaning those calls to pivot small business to e-commerce, or for consumers to purchase online to limit their time shopping in stores (to decrease transmission of the virus) were easier said than done.
Deacon said people for whom the stress of COVID manifested in problems sleeping, for example, were learning about the concepts of depression and anxiety for the first time, having never thought about their mental health before. “Suddenly you have a group of people who have never accessed the system or required specialized support and now they need it,” he said.
Lower populations and limited financial and human resources also contribute to the unique challenges rural communities experience that hinder their abilities to manage major disruptive events such as COVID, the study said.
It is this research that Deacon hopes will inform policy responses going forward; providing real, workable solutions and increasing services in areas where required.
However, he cautions that a one-size-fits-all approach to rural communities is not the answer. Each is unique in its own identity, resources and needs.
“We need to realize rural communities matter because they provide urban centres with everything they use today,” Deacon said. “That is the flag that needs to be waved here.”
Dr. Leith Deacon