Report reveals major concern impacting the mental health of rural Americans: ‘I used to get very stressed out and paralyzed with the idea’

A recent report is shedding light on how “persistent wildfire smoke” is negatively impacting the mental health of rural Americans, many of whom depend on the outdoors for their livelihoods.

What’s happening?

Grist republished a report from the Daily Yonder and Climate Central, which spoke with a number of rural Americans to better understand how wildfires were affecting their health.

Their conversations and outside research revealed that rural Americans were disproportionately impacted by the fires and experienced anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

“I used to get very stressed out and paralyzed with the idea of losing our summer, which for us is, as the owners of this small business, our livelihood,” said Will Volpert, who leads white water rafting trips with his wife, Julie, in Oregon.

A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that exposure to smoke was a factor in an uptick of suicides in rural communities. No such connection was discovered in urban populations.

“It’s a poverty problem and it’s an isolation problem. And that looks differently in rural communities than it does in urban communities,” said Joseph Schroeder, a disaster response veteran and former mental health extension specialist.

Why is this concerning?

Wildfires have been growing more frequent and severe as temperatures have risen globally, and we are still discovering the full range of physical, emotional, and economic impacts of such events, along with the long-term effects on our environment.

A joint study by Cornell, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, and the University of Houston found that smoke particles from wildfires in the United States “could lead to between 4,000 and 9,000 premature deaths and cost $36 to $82 billion per year.”

This piece spotlighting the rural communities suggests there is still much to learn.

“With this mental health and wellness piece, what we often don’t explicitly acknowledge is the threat of what the oppressive, opaque, physical heaviness of being under this white smoke for a prolonged period of time is like,” Clean Air Meadow director Elizabeth Walker said, per Grist.

What can be done to help?

There are ways to limit exposure to wildfire smoke, including by staying indoors and utilizing a HEPA filter, but avoiding activities that start fires in the first place is a major piece of the puzzle.

Our overheated Earth is now more susceptible to wildfires, making the reduction of planet-warming pollution an essential long-term goal. Switching to LED light bulbs or taking part in a community solar program are two ways to help make a dent in the issue.

However, the National Park Service notes that 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are started by humans, with improperly discarded cigarettes and unattended campfires among the causes.

Interacting with nature in a way that honors its needs and vulnerabilities can help prevent such fires in the first place and support rural communities that depend on tourism and the land to survive.

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