A new Oregon State University program is working to improve mental health and address substance use in rural communities by building on existing local partnerships.
The program, Coast to Forest Oregon, recently received a $1.1 million, two-year grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to train both OSU Extension educators and community members throughout the state. They will be provided with tools and information to respond proactively to mental health and substance use concerns in their communities.
“Our aim is to promote mental health and well-being,” says Allison Myers, director of the OSU Center for Health Innovation in the university’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “We all know friends or family who have struggled with substance use or mental illness but had trouble finding help; we may even have experienced this ourselves. The fact that Oregon currently ranks poorly in the U.S. for mental health serves as a call to action for a state that’s a recognized leader in health innovation.”
The program will focus on proven early intervention and prevention in rural communities, which face particular challenges such as a limited mental health workforce, a shortage of reliable transportation and longer distances for seeking help, and, given stigma related to mental health, concerns about a lack of anonymity and privacy when reaching out for treatment.
Several factors in rural areas compound people’s risk of injury and isolation. The loss of industry in some rural counties creates an economic downturn that causes emotional distress. Those who can still find work in industries like logging, farming and fishing are at high risk for injury and chronic pain. These conditions, along with risky prescribing practices and the availability of illicit opioids, can lead to increased use of opioids for pain management and higher rates of overdose, hospitalization and death.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated isolation across the state, one bright spot is that many of Oregon’s mental health providers have quickly pivoted to remote and distance options for therapy and support groups, says Marion Ceraso, an associate professor of practice in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
“This response by mental health treatment providers inspired us to also take a distance-based approach in our prevention work,” Marion says.
The Coast to Forest program is all remote. It will provide free monthly mental health first aid trainings for Extension faculty and community partners, focusing on how to recognize symptoms of distress and offer support before a person winds up in an emergency situation.
The program also aims to destigmatize mental health challenges and make it easier for people to talk about these issues.
Program staff will produce local radio programming to reach rural listeners and offer training to OSU Extension faculty and community partners who work in fisheries, agriculture, education, 4-H youth development and other local points of connection. They will also offer training for media outlets on best practices for writing about mental health and substance use disorders.
The program focuses on “upstream” prevention with the goal of intervening early to provide support, before treatment becomes necessary. Program directors are working with local partners to build county-specific resource guides for Oregon, so community members can offer local options for treatment when they recognize someone in distress, Marion says.
“By strengthening early intervention and prevention services in communities and collaborating with those providing treatment, we hope to both increase mental health and well-being and reduce substance use so Oregonians can get back to fully participating in their families, their work and their communities,” she says.
The Coast to Forest program is a collaboration between the Center for Health Innovation and the OSU Extension Family and Community Health Program, which are both part of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. The program is also funded with a two-year $288,000 grant it received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2019. That money is supporting a smaller subset of the program in Tillamook, Union, Lincoln and Baker counties.