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Rural Blog: Research links depression and suicide to chronic disease, especially for rural seniors

Research increasingly links depression and suicide to chronic disease, especially among seniors in rural U.S.

“Rural America has some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the nation – the more remote a community, the more heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And there’s a side effect from having a chronic condition many people don’t think about – depression, anxiety and even suicide,” Lisa Gillespie reports for Louisville’s WFPL.

“This is especially true for older adults, who’ve lived their entire lives in places with little access to places to exercise, with diets high in fat and sugar and in a culture that still hasn’t given up tobacco.”

(Graphic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

To compound the problem, rural residents often have a hard time accessing medical care for their chronic conditions and psychiatric care for the attendant mental health issues. That contributes to the increased risk of suicide in rural areas, which are already at higher risk because of a lagging economy and substance abuse. For example, “suicide rates in 2017 were 30 percent higher in Appalachia than in the rest of the country.”

Within the region, suicides were concentrated in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and East Tennessee, areas that struggle with high opioid-addiction rates and poverty.

Gina Piane, a professor at National University in San Diego, was one of the first researchers to link chronic disease and mental health. Giving rural youth more health and nutrition education is a key way to prevent such issues, she told Gillespie.

Psychologist John Fulton, who works in a rural Kentucky hospital, said he tries to teach his patients coping skills and recommends that they develop a support system of friends and family if they don’t already have one.

“I try to say, you know, you’re sitting there focusing on the bad things, and all that’s going to do is drag you down deeper,” Fulton told Gillespie. “[I] try to get them to, you know, turn around and start thinking about, ‘Well, I’ll go outside and look at dogs or I’ll watch wrestling on TV’ — get their mind off the illness and how bad they feel.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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