Here’s why living in the country may actually hurt your mental health

HOUSTON — The grass (or pavement) is always greener. Plenty of people who live in cities dream of one day packing their bags and retiring to a much more natural setting filled with wide open spaces, but many residing in more rural regions often wonder about life in a big city. While both settings have their ups and downs, researchers from the University of Houston are encouraging more people to pack up and head toward more urban areas.

Their study finds that Americans who live in rural areas tend to be more anxious and depressed, less open-minded, and more neurotic. Additionally, people living “in the country” displayed lower levels of life satisfaction and less purpose, or meaning in life, than those living in urban areas.

Importantly, the project also highlights disparities in access to mental health services as a potential major factor driving these psychological differences.

Mental health resources are disappearing in the countryside

Since 2010, there has been a surge in rural hospital closures, contributing to a reduction in the health care provider workforce – including, of course, mental health professionals. Close to 85 percent of all rural counties are dealing with a mental health professional shortage, despite rural residents actually requesting more psychological services.

“It will be critical to improve access to psychological services in remote areas and to identify how characteristics and values of rural communities can be leveraged to promote positive psychological health,” says Olivia Atherton, assistant professor of psychology, in a university release.

Family in the countryside
Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash

To conduct this research, Prof. Atherton analyzed data collected by two large longitudinal studies of U.S. Americans: Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). She focused heavily on whether there were any rural-urban differences in levels and changes among both the “Big Five” personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism) and well-being (psychological well-being, life satisfaction) across all of adulthood.

This work also provides important new insights regarding the impact of living environment, indicating that where people live can indeed impact personality and well-being in adulthood, all while simultaneously raising more questions that future work should explore.

“Given the far-reaching consequences of rural health disparities for individuals, families and communities, there is a pressing need to identify the psychological, social and structural mechanisms responsible for disparities and the ways in which to intervene upon those mechanisms to improve the health of rural Americans,” Prof. Atherton concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality.

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  1. I am greatly depressed living in a city ghetto. I’ve seen my street go from quiet and friendly, to disruptively loud and unsafe, within the last 7 years. I hope to get out and go rural. Then I won’t be depressed every f’ng day I wake up.

  2. My wife and I bought a farm and moved from a densely populated area twenty-five years ago to this sparely populated rural area. Everything, and I mean everything is better out here. Crime is lower, schools are better, people are friendlier, customer service is better, you can actually find plumbers and electricians and trades people for special projects, fresh vegetables in the summer can’t be beat, and medical and health facilities are better, contrary to media reports. We would NEVER return to urban or suburban life again!

  3. It’s interesting how other studies state leaving an urban environment, even temporarily, is good for mental health. The modern name for it is called ‘forest bathing.’ As a kid, my dad would drive out of town and we would go for long walks in nature – far from the crowds and madness. Growing up in Chicago, I didn’t know there was more than the craziness I was exposed to daily.

    After 50+ years of living in big cities, I finally moved to a semi-rural, exurban area. Over the nearly 20 years since moving here, the city has expanded with crowded developments and their postage stamp sized lots are now beginning to surround my neighborhood.

    I do not believe one word of this study.

    For the first time in my life after moving out of a city, I found peace, tranquility and happiness surrounded by God’s creatures and nature. At night I could see the majesty of the night sky without light pollution and used to wake up hearing the soothing sounds of cattle lowing in the nearby fields with deer sleeping outside my bedroom! The man-made hell holes I used to call home were the exact opposite – crowded, dirty, crime-ridden and polluted in every aspect, including light and noise.

    I’ve experienced living in both environments and am dismayed that the paradise I found is being lost rapidly. I already have a ‘primitive’ location picked out to move to, should it come to that.

  4. This is comical I doubt she ever lived in Houston! As a child from there, I can tell you my life has dramatically improved just by moving into a rural community

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