Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Ten Challenges Facing Rural Families

April 7, 2003

What kinds of problems are rural families facing today? Here is a list of issues I believe are threats to the quality of rural family life.

1. The rural economy is in trouble. Agriculture, mining, lumber, fishing or other natural resource industries can no longer sustain levels of income to sustain small town economies. Small and middle-size family farms and ranches will continue to shrink in numbers. This has an adverse effect on both the rural economy and the population base.

How does the rural community draw on local investment and entrepreneurial activity to compete in the national and global economies? How does a rural community stop its capital and its people from fleeing to other opportunities? How do leaders deal with the cynicism, apathy and pessimism of people who feel powerless in the face of powerful changes?

2. The rural economy and social changes make it harder and harder to keep married couples and families unified and close. Can couples mesh their lives and goals enough to nurture their marital relationships when societal and economics pushes them apart? Rural women have entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers. Will couples have the flexibility and communication skills to work through the necessary role adjustments?

Can parents meet the difficult challenge of being good parents with the added pressures on the family? Or will the kids be raising themselves? There is a dearth of childcare alternatives in rural communities. What about latchkey children? Will couples recognize the need to take corrective action to keep their marriage and family life strong?

3. The lives of rural men, women and children have become more stressful and involved. The needs of school, church, organizations, and community demands crowd out family time. The net result of all this activity may be good for the community but may be counterproductive to family life and togetherness.

Can parents learn to make tough choices and set their own priorities? Do rural youth and their parents say no to some opportunities? How much is too much? How does one simplify in a speeding world that drags everyone in its wake?

4. The rural community will become increasingly divided between the "haves" and the "have nots." The people suffering reverses and losses don't feel safe and comfortable in sharing their pain or feelings. The history of blame, gossip and judgment is too strong and people feel too exposed in a community that doesn't understand their hurt.

Can programs be put in place to care for those who need a temporary helping hand as the attrition from farming continues? Can the caring rural community find a way to care for its wounded without inflicting judgment?

5. Rural families as a whole do not have adequate health insurance coverage to protect them frommajor medical costs. Rural hospitals and medical services are finding it more and more difficult to stay afloat. The rising numbers of dependent elderly in rural communities will create special problems for the "sandwiched" generation.

How will this care be provided? By whom? Where? At whose expense? How will the older generation cope when health begins to fail? What about housing and assisted living?

6. The "enabling" rural culture fosters an atmosphere where alcoholism can be a major problem. Alcoholic behavior is denied, condoned or ignored until the social and family pain becomes too great.

Can public opinion be turned against alcohol abuse when it seems to be woven into the very fabric of life? What can take its place in an environment that is stressed and has few leisure and entertainment alternatives?

7. Rural teens develop their own mini-world of alcohol and drug-related entertainment and fun. Rural parents often feel helpless at the prevailing teen drinking and drug abuse patterns.

Can parents and teens come up with peer-approved alternatives to drinking and illicit drugs? Can rural youth be supported in social activities that don’t involve high risk behavior?

8. Rural teens, like teens everywhere, are subject to peer pressures and cultural bombardment encouraging premarital sexual activity. Premarital sex stunts personal development and harms future marital relationships. In the era of AIDS, premarital pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, sexual behavior has life-threatening and serious health consequences.

Communication between parents and teens about sexual issues is minimal. What can we do to protect young people? How does this education take place?

9. High school athletes are put in the limelight, glorified and elevated to positions where they feel powerful and immune from adult censure. Athletics feed the community’s need for entertainment and identity. Academics take a back seat. Many times, rural athletes aren't prepared for the beating to their self-esteem when they find the world no longer revolves around them.

How can parents help their children keep their feet on the ground when the rest of the community wants them on their shoulders?

10. The influence of television, video games, videocasettes, DVD’s and the Internet alters patterns of family life, community activities and friendships. These electronic media serve as substitutes for relationships and as an escape from pain and responsibility. The joy and meaning of one-to-one relationships take a back seat to electronic entertainment.

Can we control technology or does it control us? Do we passively let valuable time and attention go to electronic images and ignore real people around us?

That's my top 10. What's yours?