How Dogs Improve the Mental Health of Those in Rural Areas

Many people find peace in the country. Dirt roads, small towns, and the beauty of the wilderness make many people feel at home. However, rural areas can also present some challenging mental health struggles related to inadequate healthcare and feelings of isolation.

Thankfully, pets have a way of supporting a person’s mental health. In rural areas, this can be especially relevant since healthcare services are not always easily available. Though there are plenty of perks associated with living in a rural area, it’s important to examine mental health risks and determine how animals can help.

Rural Mental Health Struggles

In order to help people in rural areas with their mental health concerns, it’s important to understand the specific challenges they face. One of the issues is the lack of health services. The percentage of employer-provided healthcare coverage is small, which leaves many rural residents without access to adequate care. In addition to that, healthcare in general is not as accessible due to staffing shortages. Only about 18 percent of nurse practitioners practice in rural settings, and the lack of healthcare has a big impact on the mental well-being of those living in rural areas.

In addition to the lack of healthcare, isolation can lead to mental health struggles as well. Rural areas have lower populations, which can mean fewer opportunities to meet new people, socialize, or connect with the community. A lower population can also lead to fewer healthy activities for local residents, as fewer businesses can survive in communities that are unable to provide enough business to remain profitable. As a result, there is a risk of some locals coping through drugs and alcohol. This isolation, paired with a lack of healthcare, can be a dangerous mix for mental health. 

Many people also find themselves without help when they need it. This is troubling, since there is also a higher rate of gun-related suicides in these areas. Mental health is such an important aspect in a person’s overall health and happiness, so it’s an issue that needs to be handled with urgency.  

How Dog Ownership Can Help

Rural communities still need the appropriate resources to improve mental health. However, it’s important to know that pets can be highly impactful for those in a rural setting who have less access to care. Thankfully, there is a connection between animals and mental health that can greatly benefit pet owners. Pets offer a source of stress relief unlike any other.

In a physical sense, petting a dog can lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate, and relieve muscle tension—all elements affecting a person’s stress levels. This is one of the reasons why dogs, cats, and horses are used to help cancer patients, those in addiction recovery, and even people who live with PTSD. Even keeping a fish can improve your mental health. For those in a rural setting, an animal can make a big impact.

One major benefit that dog ownership can have on a person is the dog’s ability to provide companionship and unconditional love. Spending time with any animal can provide a person with stress release and relaxation, but spending time with an animal that you have a connection with will take those mental health benefits to another level. Dogs are loyal, loving, and pure, so being around them can provide a boost of happiness. For those struggling with mental health, that feeling of companionship is paramount in helping them through their days.

In addition to the mental health perks, pets can also improve physical health. For one, dogs can be good for owners’ health by encouraging them to get outside and exercise more. Since both the outdoors and exercise can boost a person’s overall mental health, this is a positive connection for a person’s overall wellness. Further, being around animals from a young age is helpful in terms of allergies and your immune system because the body builds a tolerance over time.

The Perks of Rural Living

While the concerns addressed above are important, there are also plenty of perks to rural living as well. In fact, one study showed that growing up in rural areas around animals can create better immune systems and fewer mental health issues. This is great for preventing mental health issues—not treating them—but it’s still an important takeaway.

Rural living is more conducive for a life with pets than urban living, so more rural families have access to dogs, livestock, and all the perks that they offer. Not only that, but rural living provides more access to the wilderness and outdoor experiences. Many people with mental health struggles ride horses, spend time with dogs, or brush cats to reap the benefits associated with animal therapy. For those in a rural setting, these are often activities that fill their everyday life anyway. In some sense, they are participating in animal therapy naturally just by living in a rural area.

There are positives and negatives associated with each lifestyle, whether you’re a city person or a country person. Though urban families have more access to mental health services, they don’t have as much access to animals and the outdoors, which can also improve a person’s mental health. However, it’s important to acknowledge the healthcare gap in small communities that makes access to mental health services more difficult. Thankfully, animals do provide a lot of help in that regard. They may not be a substitute for many vital mental health services, but they can aid in treatment and assist in preventing some common struggles.

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