Dr. David Albright
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Does Living in Rural Areas Correlate to Higher Mental Health Distress in Veterans?

Study takes a deeper look into veteran populations in Kentucky

It’s widely known that military veterans endure hardships due to their service, specifically post-combat mental and physical health issues.

A 2013 analysis of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2004–2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 13.8 percent of American veterans have serious psychological distress - compared to 12 percent of nonveterans. One report from the Department of Veterans Affairs cited $8 billion was spent on veteran mental health care in 2017 alone. 

A team of researchers set out to see if there is any relationship between veterans living in densely populated areas versus those who live in more rural, isolated communities. The team selected veterans living in Kentucky due to the sharp increase in suicide-related deaths.

According to data from a 2018 report by Safe States Alliance, Kentucky showed an 80 percent uptick in veteran suicides from 2010 to 2014. 

Dr. David L. Albright contributed to the study “Military-civilian residential segregation and military member psychological distress in Kentucky counties” that cross-referenced demographic information with mental health data of more than 200,000 veterans living in the state. The purpose of the study was to determine whether or not there was a direct correlation between psychological distress in veterans and the population density where they live.

To estimate psychological distress prevalence among veterans in Kentucky’s 120 counties, They obtained county-level population count data from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2016 (U.S. Census Bureau 2018). 

The dataset obtained from the Census Bureau consisted of aggregate population counts for each county, by age, gender, race, ethnicity, veteran status (veteran or nonveteran), and rural–urban county designation (urban, mostly rural, and completely rural).

Altogether, the 120 counties in this study included 289,837 individual veteran profiles in 2016. 

This study, in harmony with other research reports, showed that veterans geographically separated from robust resources are the most susceptible to psychological health problems/symptoms. 

Rural health care and public health practitioners may build upon the aforementioned evidence by identifying region-specific factors related to psychological distress triggers occurring in counties with greater rurality. 

Practitioners may need to become more cognizant of the veteran status of their patients, and in turn, sensitized to risk factors that alert them to responsive treatment options and referrals to applicable, evidence-based interventions available through avenues such as the VA, Office of Rural Health. 

In addition, faith-based organizations and other groups may consider spearheading the formation of community coalitions that bring veterans and nonveterans together to facilitate veteran reintegration into civilian society and help to monitor other possible indicators of veterans’ health status.

The full study is "Military-civilian residential segregation and military member psychological distress in Kentucky counties" and can be found at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10708-019-10053-x.

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Dr. David L. Albright is a military veteran, author, and social work researcher. Throughout his career, he has focused his work on producing research and insights useful for international healthcare policymakers, academic institutions, and private organizations as they work to address and improve health-related determinants and outcomes among underserved communities. Learn more about his work and how you can work with him at https://www.drdavidalbright.com.

David Albright