USU Extension to launch free online mental health courses to support rural Utah farmers and ranchers

File photo: Vendor booths at the first Hurricane Farmers Market, Hurricane, Utah, Aug. 22, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Andrea Wittwer, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE — The Utah State University Extension will launch two free online courses within the next year that will focus on mental health awareness, advocacy and acceptance in rural Utah.

The courses will be available to anyone in Utah who is willing to take them, said Tasha Killian, assistant professor at USU Extension. The purpose of the courses is to enable rural Utahns to build a network of community members educated in mental health skills and practices. 

“They’re geared toward rural Utahns with farming and ranching backgrounds,” Killian said. “That’s because people in rural Utah have a harder time receiving treatment due to a lack of accessibility and having to drive long distances to clinics and doctors.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a Western Region Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network Grant to universities across the country to support agricultural producers. USU Extension received $200,000 and is partnering with the Human Development and Family Sciences Department and the Center for Persons with Disabilities, both of which have offices on USU’s campus, to invest in Utah farmers and ranchers.

One of the courses will focus on mental health awareness and advocacy and the other will be based on commitment and acceptance therapy principles, Killian said. In the first course, students will learn what mental health looks like in a rural population and when to acknowledge an issue. The second course will aim to build skills in accepting the emotions that come with mental health and how to work through them. Both courses will strive to educate rural populations about how to talk about emotions and mental health issues. 

“There’s a lot of stigma in rural areas about that,” Killian said. “It’s harder to open up and talk about your feelings. … So the goal is to provide assistance to anybody, whether that’s finding the courses or a friend.” 

The isolation that people have faced throughout the coronavirus pandemic may have increased people’s mental health risks as well as their discomfort with talking about their feelings, said Rob Wesemann, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah. NAMI has been offering online courses throughout the year and agreed with Killian that virtual classes could provide more access for rural Utahns to mental health education. 

“Since we’ve had to move all of our activities to virtual, people in rural communities have started to participate more,” Wesemann said. “Online classes can be very helpful. It eliminates travel (to clinics and physicians). … NAMI is reaching people now that we haven’t before. I think it’s a good addition to what’s already there.” 

Specifically in Southern Utah, virtual classes and meetings increase accessibility for those who need help wherever they are, said Wayne Connors, president of NAMI Utah Southwest. Although Southwest Utah is always short-handed when it comes to counselors and psychiatrists, mental health professionals can meet with multiple clients at once over platforms like Zoom.

“Locally, you can round up five people who want a class and they’ll find somebody to give the class,” Connors said. “It’s hard not to be one-on-one, but this really is a great alternative, and it gets the information out. (People) need to know they’re not alone. There is hope and there is help.”

There are some disadvantages to online learning though, Wesemann said. One is that for people who aren’t comfortable talking to their family about mental health issues, it can be difficult to participate in an online course without members of your household knowing about it. Another issue is accessibility to the internet, which is not specific to rural areas. NAMI works to provide additional access to laptops and technology, which is faster and easier to do than building new clinics, Wesemann said. 

“What I would hope for the University Extension is that they look at those pieces too,” he said. 

Killian hopes that the courses will be ready to launch by September 2021. More information can be found here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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