Experts Study The Psychological Challenges Of Rural Living

People who endure the daily hassles of big cities often romanticize life in the country. But rural living is not necessarily the carefree, idyllic experience that many people imagine, said Emily Willroth, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Emily WillrothWillroth
Willroth co-authored a study in the Journal of Personality suggesting that people in rural areas face unique challenges that may shape their personalities and psychological well-being. “We found that people in rural areas may be especially vulnerable to experiencing mental health symptoms,” Willroth said.

The study combined data from two nationwide surveys involving more than 27,000 respondents. The surveys gauged overall psychological well-being and scored respondents on the “big five” personality traits: neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and extraversion. Respondents were also scored on an urban-rural scale. Those living in a metro area with a population of 1 million or more were on one end; those who lived in a completely rural area or in a town with fewer than 2,500 people were at the other.

The results pointed to potential mental health differences between city and country inhabitants.

For example, people who lived in more rural areas tended to score higher in levels of neuroticism, a personality trait that is marked by increased anxiety and depression. Willroth noted that people in rural areas often lack access to mental health care services, educational opportunities and other resources.

“These resource gaps may contribute to greater neuroticism,” she said.

People who lived in rural areas also tended to score lowest in measures of conscientiousness, a personality trait that encompasses productivity, personal responsibility and organization. In one of the surveys, people in rural areas showed a relative lack of openness, an attribute marked by creativity and intellectual curiosity.

Those trends make some sense, Willroth said. “We know that education and diverse cultural experiences promote conscientiousness and openness,” she said. “You might imagine that people living in rural areas with access to fewer resources might not develop the same levels of openness and conscientiousness as someone who lives in an urban environment.”

Willroth also noted that, in general, people can decide where they want to live, and it’s possible that personality helps drive that decision. People who know they’re on the neurotic side of the spectrum may decide to live in a rural area because they know they’d be stressed out by the hustle and bustle of the city, she said. Meanwhile, those who are especially open to new experiences might flock to a city.

The surveys also found that people in rural areas tended to score lower in overall psychological well-being, a measure that includes sense of purpose, self-acceptance and positive relationships with others, among other signs of good mental health. Importantly, those differences disappeared when researchers controlled for other factors that can separate rural and urban communities, including education levels, income and the presence of social networks. In other words, it appears that a lack of these resources — not rural living in itself — is the real threat to psychological well-being.

“We know that social support and having strong social ties is really important for the development of psychological well-being,” Willroth said. “It’s certainly possible to have strong social ties within a rural community.”

People can thrive anywhere with the right support, but rural communities may be at a disadvantage, she said.

“We know that there are differences between rural and urban environments in terms of access to resources, including mental health resources,” Willroth said. She noted that up to 85% of rural communities have a shortage of mental health professionals, a trend that’s only getting worse.

“These findings highlight the need to bring mental health care to rural communities and to not let that trend continue,” she said.