Year-old Minnesota State Mankato center focused on rural mental health is growing with behind-the-scenes partnerships and money that could help increase access to health care mental health in rural Minnesota over the next few years.

The MSU Mankato Rural Behavioral Health Center recently received a three-year, $600,000 donation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which is adding its name to the center.

Meanwhile, a petition to the Minnesota Legislature could bring in $1.5 million for a mental health provider training clinic. A soon-to-be-announced partnership with a farm group will further focus on farmers’ mental health efforts.

This is all part of a larger effort to improve mental health professional shortages in Greater Minnesota. More than 80% of counties in Minnesota are classified as having a shortage of mental health professionals, including all but Olmsted County in southern Minnesota.

“The longer we wait, the worse this problem will get,” said Thad Shunkwiler, director of the center.

Shunkwiler, a professor at MSU Mankato, founded the center last year in response to growing concerns about a shortage of mental health care providers in the state, resulting in less access to mental health in rural areas.

A report released earlier this year by the center and the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development shows that the number of rural Minnesota hospitals offering outpatient psychiatric and drug addiction services fell 11% over the last last decade. Additionally, mental health care providers in rural and small towns are on average closer to retirement than their urban counterparts: the median age of rural providers is 63, compared to 56 in metropolitan areas.

There are no providers in some parts of the state. According to Shunkwiler, no mental health professionals live or work in Jackson County, even though mental health needs are increasing there.

Minnesota Student Survey data shows two-thirds of female K-12 students in Jackson County report long-term mental health issues, nearly double the state average .

“And yet they don’t have a single provider providing care in their county now,” Shunkwiler said.

Shunkwiler and other advocates hope the Legislature will fund a training clinic that would enable potential providers to serve children and uninsured and underinsured residents of south-central Minnesota. Their proposal has already made the first round of bills to be included in omnibus legislation later this session.

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, sponsored the bill in the Senate. He said he believed the proposal had a good chance of securing funding for this session as a strategy to address rural mental health access in the short term.

“When you see increased demand and increased need for voters, you want to find a way to meet that need,” Frentz said.

However, this is only one aspect of solving the labor shortage. Sue Abderholden of NAMI Minnesota, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there are still wage issues spurred by lagging Medicaid reimbursement rates and hurdles for graduates. universities for training supervision.

Lawmakers have approved subsidy programs for rural providers to offer training oversight and increase reimbursements for telehealth services, which Abderholden says must continue to improve access. NAMI advocates are also pushing for an office of mental health and substance use disorders within the Minnesota Department of Health, based on a similar office in Nebraska, that could track labor issues. work.

“What we want to do is make sure someone watches this,” Abderholden said. “They monitor people entering Minnesota programs. They make it easy to find supervision and internships.”

Shunkwiler said the Mankato researchers plan to partner with Wilder Research later this year to study why half of college graduates with mental health-related degrees don’t pursue careers as providers. From there, Shunkwiler expects to set goals to increase the number of mental health care providers in rural areas.

Bukata Hayes, vice president of racial and health equity at Blue Cross, said he expects the insurance company to continue funding the MSU Mankato center beyond its initial donation.

“These first three years are just the first iteration of our partnership,” he said.

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