Skip to content

Rural Social Work: Addressing Social Problems in Rural Areas

The rural and urban divide has steadily received more attention over the past decade. Conversations on different values, lifestyles, and even different voting habits have taken up space in new cycles. Perhaps some of the more startling differences, though, appear in the impacts of social issues.

Many social problems continue to affect rural communities more severely than urban ones. As a result, rural social work practitioners face different obstacles when serving in those areas. In order to offer the most effective support, rural social workers need to understand those unique challenges and think creatively about how to solve them.

Rural Social Work Challenges

Limited Access to Mental Health Support

Access to mental health services is a major obstacle for people in rural areas, even though the “prevalence of mental illness in rural and metropolitan areas is similar,” according to the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science. Specifically, 65% of nonmetropolitan counties do not have psychiatrists. This gap in mental health outcomes results in a disproportionately higher rate of untreated depression and substance abuse.

To help curb these disparities, many social workers push for greater access to telemental health support, healthcare coverage, and a combination of primary care and mental health resources. One organization that offers an effective union of mental health and medical services is the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which works to serve the more than 2.8 million rural veterans that depend on the VA for healthcare. The VA’s measures to expand its telemental health reach have proven successful so far, with the rate of veterans employing remote psychotherapy steadily rising. According to recent research published from the journal Telemedicine and E-Health, there was a 442% increase in telemental health sessions conducted over videoconferencing in 2020 as compared to 2019.

Difficulty Finding Physician Care

Though 20% of the population in the United States inhabit rural spaces, only 10% of the country’s physicians practice in these areas, according to the article “Addressing Rural Health Challenges Head On.” It’s a much greater challenge with much greater consequences for rural residents to find routine care when they need it.

With this shortage of primary care physicians and trained professionals in rural areas, social workers have to think outside of the box. According to the article “Rural Health Networks and Care Coordination,” a compelling solution to the physician shortage and high cost of healthcare in rural areas is to organize community care teams (CCT). Researchers for the study found that even though “patients who participated in care coordination reported similar physical and lower emotional health quality of life than national counterparts,” participants were able to avoid going to the emergency room by finding more convenient care pathways.

The care coordination needed for CCT programs to be successful is varied and can take on several structures, depending on a community’s needs and available resources. Social workers tend to offer the most support through roles such as care managers – who coordinate between patients and primary care providers or specialists – and even acting as care providers.

Higher Levels of Poverty

Poverty exists everywhere in the United States, but there are currently more people in rural areas that face poverty than in urban or metropolitan communities. From research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018, the poverty rate in rural areas was nearly 4% higher than in metro counterparts.

Despite this economic disparity, rural areas have experienced a lower unemployment rate in recent years. Social workers can capitalize on this positive trend by combatting the factors that contribute to poverty outside of the unemployment rate – they can advocate for job training, furthering education to qualify for higher-paying jobs, and ensure job-searchers still have access to resources while unemployed.

Greater Risk of Overdose

Substance abuse, and specifically the opioid epidemic that began in the early 2000s, has hit rural communities especially hard. The CDC recently reported that deadly drug overdoses since 1999 have been higher in rural areas than urban spaces. While drug abuse rates have remained relatively similar between metro and nonmetro populations, more people in rural areas are dying from overdosing.

To give rural residents a better chance of surviving drug overdoses, first responders are now equipped with the medication naloxone across rural communities. While social workers won’t necessarily be the ones to administer the lifesaving medication themselves, they can continue to train the community on overdose preventative measures, back advocacy-based legislation, and create overdose kits. As a result, those struggling with substance abuse can gain access to the resources they need.

Telehealth Adaption Disparities

According to the CDC, those who reside in rural spaces are at greater risk of dying from these issues than their urban counterparts:

  • Heart disease
  • Accidental injury
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Lower respiratory disease

Despite the increased risks that rural populations face, many are unable to go to the doctor. In addition to the lack of healthcare providers in rural communities, the physicians and medical professionals who practice in nonmetro areas are usually located farther away. This increased distance makes the commute more difficult for patients.

To help curb these higher rates, many healthcare providers have turned to telehealth. These remote services link patients with trained professionals who can offer medical advice and prescribe medicine remotely. This advancement has the potential to benefit rural communities immensely, but research has indicated there is hesitancy to use it. Many factors could contribute to why people in rural communities aren’t using telehealth, including lack of internet access, personal connection with a doctor, and awareness of telehealth offerings.

Recently, access to communications platforms has expanded, and the number of new users has grown on a massive scale. Programs like Zoom have helped people stay connected to family, employers, and now, mental health providers are using similar platforms to reach clients. Telehealth providers and rural social workers can tap into this momentum to appeal to rural residents to start using remote care opportunities for their medical needs.

Reaching Children across Great Distances

One vulnerable group that requires greater attention from social workers in rural spaces is children. In the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), researchers found child abuse rates were 1.7 times higher in rural areas than in major urban places.

One overlooked obstacle that social workers must confront is the great physical distance in serving children. According to the HHS’s report “Rural Child Welfare Practice,” 87.5% of surveyed rural social work practitioners who serve children have identified long travel distances as one of the biggest hurdles in offering support.

To offer support to these children and families where access to resources may be limited, many rural communities have established regional health centers. These centers can feature treatment programs and health offerings that include vascular care, cancer treatment, eye care, physical rehabilitation, and behavioral health. Social workers can use these health centers as support hubs to extend their reach into rural areas. According to the same HHS report, more than 33% of people who seek care from these regional health centers come from rural communities, which helps alleviate the stress of traveling greater distances.

Training for the Future of Rural Social Work

While these barriers present challenges every day, there’s never been a more pressing time for passionate social workers to serve rural communities. When rural communities receive the support they need from trained professionals, they can use these resources to improve lives. One of the most effective ways to help these communities is by gaining real-world training from professionals with experience in the field.

The online MSW from the University of Kentucky will equip you with the skills to support vulnerable and diverse populations across rural areas. The program importantly features three areas of focus: Clinical Social Work, Individualized Plan of Study, and Substance Use Disorder. Additionally, the University of Kentucky will offer a Rural Social Work certificate in 2022. All of these options will give you the opportunity to develop career-ready skills that provide you the best platform to serve different rural communities that face unique challenges.

Learn more about the program and how you can complete it in as few as 30 credit hours today.