Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Threats To Rural Quality Of Life

June 20, 2004

The idyllic rural setting that promotes a family life filled with togetherness and harmony is being threatened by a combination of problems and forces.

Rural economy. The rural economic climate is being affected by large forces like globalization, centralization and consolidation. The exodus of young people, a low birth rate, and the aging and death rate of the rural population contributes to a steady drag on the economy. Information age technologies make it possible to relocate business opportunity to rural areas but they also distort local economies by their own efficiencies and consolidating forces.

Though the farm economy is bouncing back, economic pressure continues to cause a loss of medium size farms and population in agriculture dependent counties. The political clout of rural states and rural counties within states erodes as suburban and urban interests often dictate policy.

Though there is plenty of wealth in rural areas, the willingness to reinvest in local development is often lacking. The lack of perceived opportunity and stagnant or declining economy makes the future seem dim.

Consumer and media-driven values. Rural communities are different from mainstream society, both in values and economic environment, and feelings of victimization, intolerance, and cynicism can abound. Our national media ignore rural realities and problems and glamorize fast-track living of wealthy urbanites. Young people and adults have their self-esteem undermined by portrayals of rural life as being marginal and anachronistic at best.

Walls of suspicion and hostility prevent an openness to change and new ideas. There is a tendency for rural people to adopt a passive, helpless view toward their own lives. This perceived lack of control over their destiny drains spirit and initiative from community and political self-help projects. The young feel the pessimism and rancor. They leave convinced that they will have to build their lives somewhere else.

Alcoholism. Problem drinking in rural communities ranks high on the list of social concerns. This involves alcoholism, drunk driving, and teen-age alcohol use. Drinking is a socially accepted part of many rural functions. Rural people generally realize the devastating impact of alcohol abuse on rural life. However, when it comes to recognizing that their own personal drinking is a problem, forget it. Rural people see it as someone else’s problem and not their own.

Like their adult counterparts, teens use alcohol as the centerpiece of their socializing. Peer pressure to participate is powerful and subtle. The power and influence of their most popular classmates is great. Rural teens risk rejection and social isolation by not joining in the partying scene. It may mean not having a social life at all.

Conflict in family business. Family business is a common form of economic activity in rural communities. There is a lot of stress and tension in these businesses when management practices inhibit the growth and emotional well-being of family members. These problems are largely hidden from the view of the community. There is no specific service being offered these families to address these dysfunctional relationships.

Workaholism. A common problem with farmers and people with farm backgrounds is workaholism. Much of the unkindness and hurt in personal relationships comes from a compulsive view of work.

With family farmers, workaholism has its roots in the monumental importance placed on the farm as a sacred institution to be developed and preserved at all costs. It is difficult to be disciplined enough to know when to quit work and to place more priority on family fun, couples time, recreational companionship, socializing, church involvement and other aspects of living a balanced life.

Role adjustments and competing priorities. Rural couples often face time pressures such as commuting sizable distances, volunteer time, children’s activities and sports, secondary businesses or jobs and two income families. There is a lot on people’s plate. This spate of activity has to be integrated into family life in a coherent way or couples live pressured and separate lives.

Couples grow apart, get on each other’s nerves or feel ignored or unsupported.

Adjustments in relationships and shared responsibilities in the home add strain and confusion as rural couples sort out new roles.

Burnout. There is a premium on people who are community-minded and are willing to contribute to needed community and church functions. They provide leadership and support to many organizations and events. Their active, dynamic children are equally as active in school, church, sports, and extracurricular activities. Between busy parents and active children, family time disappears.

Talented people learn to set their limits. They learn they can't do it all. The burdens on the remaining few become greater. The downward spiral of community life accelerates as fewer and fewer people accept responsibility for community service.

Social scrutiny. One of the hazards of living in a small community is the lack of anonymity. Personal decisions, problems, and even successes quickly become the subject of gossip, scrutiny, and jealousy. People learn to live by appearances and keep their problems to themselves. The lack of openness undermines support and clear thinking when problems occur in people's lives. Mental health problems, family problems, economic problems, alcohol problems, and even issues of grief and loss are endured alone.

Despite these pressures and threats, rural quality of life is still high.