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   from the issue of September 22, 2005

Rural Nebraskans look to family, friends for help with personal problems


When rural Nebraskans have personal problems, they are most comfortable talking with family or friends and much less likely to turn to mental health or substance abuse professionals, according to the 2005 Nebraska Rural Poll.

This year's UNL poll asked how comfortable respondents were with talking to various people about personal problems. Researchers included questions in the 10th annual poll to better understand rural views on issues relating to behavioral health services.

Eighty-two percent of respondents said they are comfortable talking to a family member and 79 percent to a close friend. Seventy percent are comfortable talking to a physician; 61 percent to a clergy member.

"This shows people really do depend on their families and friends, as we would hope," said Alan Tomkins, director of the university's Public Policy Center. He collaborated with Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers on the poll.

However, Tomkins said he was surprised and concerned that rural residents didn't express more confidence in behavioral health professionals.

Only 19 percent said they were comfortable discussing personal problems with a substance abuse counselor while 32 percent were comfortable with a mental health professional. That compares with 38 percent who were comfortable talking with a work colleague or supervisor and 35 percent with a teacher.

"It's great that they rely heavily on friends and family but they aren't trained professionals," he said. "Although many problems can be helped by supportive friends and families, problems such as drug addiction and serious mental illness need professional assistance. Nebraska has a strong behavioral health provider infrastructure and it appears rural Nebraskans aren't taking full advantage of it."

Results probably reflect a lack of familiarity with behavior health professionals, said Becky Vogt, poll manager and analyst.

"It's not that they're more uncomfortable; they just haven't had contact so they have no opinion," Vogt said.

Sixty-three percent of respondents had no opinion about substance abuse counselors and 46 percent had no opinion about mental health professionals. Twenty-two percent said they were not comfortable talking to a mental health professional and 18 percent to a substance abuse counselor. That compares with 24 percent not comfortable with a work colleague or supervisor, 19 percent not comfortable with teachers, 17 percent not comfortable with a physician and 14 percent not comfortable with clergy.

Small town culture also may be a factor, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist who works on the poll.

"There's no stigma attached to parking your car in front of your doctor's office, but there may be if you park at the substance abuse counselor's office," he said.

When selecting a behavioral health professional, licensure, insurance coverage and location of a provider are the most important considerations, the poll showed. The proportions of people who ranked various factors as important were: provider is licensed, 79 percent; covered by insurance or other third-party payment, 75 percent; close to my home, 66 percent; has spiritual beliefs like mine, 50 percent; or is part of a faith-based organization, 40 percent.

These findings will aid efforts to better serve rural areas, where mental health and substance abuse services often aren't easily accessible, Tomkins said. The Public Policy Center is working with state agencies and community- and faith-based groups on Nebhands, an initiative to provide behavioral health services to Nebraskans.



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