ON THE BRINK OF A CRISIS
Over the past few years, talking about and seeking mental health support has become much more acceptable in society.
While the majority of people will agree that this is a very good thing, there is one issue that not many people think about.
That issue is the lack of mental health providers, especially in rural areas.
In fact, at any given time, Minnesota can have 2,000 or more mental health professional jobs available. Thad Shunkwiler, an Assistant Professor at Mankato State University, has been studying this issue extensively and said that this has been a problem that has been a long time coming. “This problem has been coming for a while,” Shunkwiler said.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to the lack of mental health providers, is the disparity between the amount of providers in rural areas and the metro. “When examined geographically, this issue becomes more pronounced. According to health department data, the metro area makes up roughly 54 percent of the total state population but currently has 75 percent of all practicing behavioral health professionals,” Shunkwiler wrote in a op-ed.
One of the consequences for not having local providers in the area, is that people who need mental health support, need to drive long distances in order to do so.
Because of this it puts a huge added burden on those who need help, and for some with limited resources like transportation, it can cause a nightmare to seek help that they need.
Because of these burdens, the reality is that some people may just simply not seek help, which causes more issues down the road. As Shunkwiler explained, many mental health issues, are better off when they are addressed as soon as possible.
Those in rural areas, will certainly be the ones who are most affected by this.
“Rural Minnesota will feel this provider shortage far more than our metro counterparts. What does this mean for those needing mental health care in outstate Minnesota? It likely means delays or long waits for treatment, requirements to travel great distance for care, or people deciding to forgo care altogether,” Shunkwiler stated.
At Mankato State, the university has made a large investment when it comes to training the next generation of mental health professionals.
Some of the ways that they have done this is add more resources to the program, added more faculty among other things.
Shunkwiler, explained that this investment has helped, as the program has grown from about 60 students at a time to 160 students, in just a few years.
One of the selling points, that Shunkwiler uses when it comes to recruiting students, is the reality that there is a guaranteed job out there for them at time of graduation in there field if they want one.
“I tell students there’s 100 percent chance of job after graduating,” Shunkwiler said.
Although, it is important for universities and colleges to provide more opportunities for students to study in the needed area, the reality is that there are many reasons why professionals are leaving the field at a young age, or going into a completely different field all together.
One of the main reasons that Shunkwiler pointed for this, is the fact lack of training opportunities, especially for those in rural areas.
“A number of factors have led to this decline. There are relatively few training programs for behavioral health providers, and even fewer in outstate Minnesota. Enrollment in these training programs is limited, often due to the number of faculty available to teach the required courses,” Shunkwiler stated.
The harsh reality, is also the fact that mental health providers are paid significantly less than those in other health care fields.
“Reimbursement rates for mental health services are lower than when compared to other health-care services. These low reimbursement rates place downward pressure on salaries, which adds another reason for people to choose a health profession outside of behavioral health,” Shunkwiler stated.
Another issue, that Shunkwiler pointed to is the fact that the median age for mental health providers is increasing.
“Minnesota Department of Health’s Mental and Behavioral Health Workforce Reports indicate the median age of providers is within late 40’s to mid 50’s, depending on the discipline of the provider. According to these current projections, there will be many more providers leaving the profession than entering it in the not too distant future,” Shunkwiler stated. “In 10 years this problem will be much worse,” he added.
There are a number of different things, that could potentially be done, to help fix the problems with the shortage, but Shunkwiler pointed to a couple specifically.
We need to invest in providing grants or allocating funds to the training programs that produce behavioral health providers,” Shunkwiler stated. “Specifically, investing in programs in outstate Minnesota, as we know that students tend to stay in or near communities in which they attended higher education. Academic institutions need to build and maintain partnerships with local agencies to develop and cultivate relationships in an effort to keep graduates in the community,” he added.
Another thing that Shunkwiler pointed to is the state continuing to invest in rural incentive programs.
“Minnesota needs to continue to invest in its rural practice incentives and providing loan forgiveness programs for professionals who practice in Health Professional Shortage Areas. I know all of these things cost money. However, when we hear how important it is to prioritize mental health, it means we must make it a financial priority too,” Shunkwiler stated.
The way, Shunkwiler looks at the issue is simple. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who is tasked with paying the bill for mental health, if there is no providers to pay.
“While the states administration and legislative bodies will undoubtedly spend this upcoming session discussing health- care insurance, and who should pay for these services, we cannot forget that it doesn’t matter who pays the bill, if there are no providers of the care that is needed,” Shunkwiler stated.
Although, Shunkwiler says he considers the shortage to be a problem right now, he feels as though it will be more than that in the future.
“It will be a crisis in the future,” Shunkwiler said. “We can’t ignore the problem anymore.”