OSU Program Reaching Rural Communities for Mental Health Support

A new Oregon State University program has recently received funding to help improve and respond proactively to mental health concerns and substance use in rural communities by furthering local partnerships. 

The program is called Coast to Forest Oregon, and has received a $1.1million two-year grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to train, and provide tools and information to community members in the state as well as OSU Extension educators.  

Allison Myers, the director of the OSU Center for Health Innovation in the university’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said to the OSU Newsroom that the aim of the program is to “promote mental health and well-being.”  

She added that the nationally low rank of the states’s mental health services was a call to action, considering Oregon’s status as a leader in health improvement 

The program’s focus is on early intervention and prevention in rural areas. Challenges in these communities include limited mental health services, lack of reliable transportation, increased distances between people and help, and mental health stigma fueling concerns about anonymity and privacy when reaching out for services.  

Compounding those challenges are isolation and people’s risk of injury. In some rural counties, loss of industry has created an economic downturn which in turn may cause emotional distress. Those finding work in logging, farming, and fishing, are at a higher risk for injuries and chronic pain, and that may be mixed with risky prescription practices and accessibility of opioids. These factors can lead to an increase in opioids for pain management, higher overdose rates, hospitalization, and death.  

Marion Ceraso, an associate professor of practice in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said while COVID has increased isolation across the state, many mental health providers have switched to remote and distance options for mental health services. 

Ceraso added that this inspired Coast to Forest Oregon to take a remote approach in their work.  

The program is set up to be completely remote, providing free mental health first aid training for staff, focusing on proactively recognizing distress symptoms, and offering help before an emergency occurs. Working with local partners, program directors aim to build resources specific to counties to connect people with close options for treatment.  

Ceraso said that increasing intervention and prevention was hoped to better mental health and reduce substance use.   

Along with that, the program wants to decrease stigma in these areas and increase the ability for people to discuss issues.  

Staff will use radio programs in rural areas to reach listeners, offer training to media on writing about mental health and substance use disorders, as well as offering training to OSU Extension faculty and community partners working in fisheries, agriculture, education, 4-H, and other areas that may serve as a local connecting point.  

The program is a collaboration between two parts of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences – the Center for Health Innovation and the OSU Extension Family and Community Health Program, and is funded using a two-year $288,000 grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funding is also supporting subsets of the program in Tillamook, Union, Lincoln, and Baker counties.  

By: Hannah Ramsey