Beyond City Limits

Rural Colorado’s challenges call for creative solutions and collaboration

With Parentline, a free telehealth service for pregnant and postpartum families, Vozar feels she’s been able to close the gap. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, her team of doctoral trainees found their 16-county caseload suddenly full.

An admitted “telehealth skeptic” at first, Vozar has been amazed at the way different types of therapy have adapted to an online environment. Plus, the pandemic has forced changes in the way psychologists receive training, removing the need for travel and in-person tutelage.

“We’re going to see a real revolution in the ability to reach folks for whom mental health has been inaccessible,” she says. “I think we’re really going to see rapid innovation in the coming years. We’ll be able to be more flexible as mental health professionals.”

The convenience of the virtual world is an asset, agrees Elaine Belansky, an associate research professor at DU’s Morgridge College of Education and director of the Center for Rural School Health and Education (CRSHE). Certainly, it has helped CRSHE continue its quest for equity in rural, low-income school districts, even during these socially distanced times.

That said, Belansky adds, FaceTime will never be a replacement for face-to-face interactions, especially when it comes to reaching more remote communities.

“Virtual can work if you already have strong partnerships in place,” she says. “Part of the reason we’ve been successful is that we travel to rural communities at least monthly to build relationships and increase our understanding of challenges.”

With limited resources, rural schools must get creative to offer wellness education. Photo courtesy of Elaine Belansky

The reason CRSHE has succeeded, she says, is because of the in-person work she and her colleagues have put in to understand the staffing, support and resource-accessibility issues that come with the territory in less populated, higher-poverty areas.

After connecting with various communities during COVID, CRSHE is focused on addressing the stress rural educators are feeling from shifting their educational approaches. That’s on top of shouldering the trauma their students may regularly face: Rates of suicide, depression and obesity trend higher among rural students. Throughout her work, however, Belansky pauses to make sure she’s being fair to the state’s often overlooked communities.

“It’s so easy and sexy to talk about all the negatives, but I think it’s very important to create a balanced picture of all the positives,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about rural Colorado is you’re raising a family in a community that’s going to know the names of all of your children. Whether they’ve met you personally or not, when you go through a difficult life event, they’re going to come and help you.”

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