MANKATO — Minnesota State University plans to create a Center for Rural Behavioral Health in the fall, with the focus being on improving access to mental health care in rural Minnesota.

The center will pursue research opportunities, workforce development for students interested in behavioral health fields, and continuing education for professionals in the field, according to MSU’s announcement Thursday.

It’ll be one of if not the only higher education centers in the country fully focused on addressing behavioral health needs in rural areas, said Thad Shunkwiler, founding director at the center and a health science professor at MSU.

By establishing the center, he said, one of the goals will be to recruit more students to enter the field. Having a center dedicated to rural mental health could end up serving as a magnet for students who previously weren’t aware about the field’s workforce needs.

“If we help tell this story of how important these jobs are, we can recruit and retain and put those professionals back in those rural areas to serve their communities,” he said.

With most Minnesota counties qualifying as shortage areas for mental health care, the center can help address those rural needs, said MSU President Edward Inch in a release.

“The center will work with community partners on research while seeking state and federal funding to grow a culturally representative behavioral health care workforce in rural Minnesota,” he stated.

A longer-term goal for the center, which is on track to kick off in August, will be to take what they learn here and help rural areas in other states. While workforce shortage issues are worsening in Minnesota, rural areas across the country face similar gaps.

Shunkwiler had the idea for the center in 2019.

He’s spoken out in recent years about the pressing need for more behavioral health providers in southern Minnesota and other rural areas of the state, an issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university has five academic programs across three colleges — allied health and nursing, education, and social and behavioral sciences — preparing students for behavioral health careers. Faculty and students in the programs, as well as faculty and students in other MSU colleges, could collaborate on scholarly work within the newly established center.

Scholarly activities across multiple disciplines will be aimed at improving the “quality and access to resources in outstate Minnesota,” said Kris Retherford, dean of MSU’s college of allied health and nursing in a release.

Research won’t focus as much on the problems — the problems are evident in the research already out there — but on possible solutions, Shunkwiler said. One research area he mentioned would look into telehealth, as more patients relied on it during the pandemic.

Understanding if telehealth is meeting mental health needs, or what would need to change for it to meet more needs, will be important in rural Minnesota, Shunkwiler said. It seems to be part of the solution, but not the only solution if it leads to rural patients receiving care from metro providers.

“The struggles people face in small towns and rural, isolated areas are often different than the struggles in metro areas,” he said. “A broken arm in Blue Earth County is the same as in Edina, but the struggles of someone working on a dairy farm outside New Ulm are different than the emotional struggles someone is dealing with in downtown Minneapolis.”

Outside the university, the center will seek partnerships with health care organizations, behavioral health care providers and other sectors including agribusiness.

The idea is they all have a stake in the future of the behavioral health field, whether because they’ll need trained professionals or their employees need accessible care.

They, along with students and faculty at MSU, will soon have the center to turn to as a resource for their behavioral health needs.

“I’m hopeful that people can see the benefit of this center and rally behind it and help us kick it off this fall,” Shunkwiler said.