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Hardship is not unknown in outstate Minnesota. In isolated communities, there are challenges to accessing health care, with hospitals long distances away. Accessing mental health resources can be especially difficult, which is far too common in the vast expanse of Minnesota.

But there are people working to help, with one — Thad Shunkwiler — looking to grow the industry. Shunkwiler, a father, veteran and noted professor, is seeking to change the game. In August 2001, Shunkwiler entered the military, right before the Sept. 11 attacks. He participated in the war on terror and served overseas in the U.S. Army.

"And so after spending some time overseas and coming home and having some difficulty in transitioning back from a deployment, I participated in my own behavioral health services and started seeing the kind of impact I could have if I chose this as a profession," said Shunkwiler, founder of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota  Center for Rural Behavioral Health at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "So I would say I found my way to mental health, through my own lived experiences."

But even with those working to improve the field, great issues still linger. A big one of those is merely having access to the resources. In a time of crisis when immediate action is needed, usually hospitals are too far to provide care.

"So, when you think about a rural community, you might have 60, 80 miles geographically that encapsulates kind of an area. And so even if someone lives just 10 miles away from town, that's a barrier for them," he said. "It's an access issue to providers; there's simply just not enough providers in rural communities."

Even if we had complete and easy access to mental health resources like clinics, we don't have enough people to provide those services. In Minnesota alone half the population lives outside the Twin Cities metro area, with only 20% of total mental health providers in the state serving those areas. But Shunkwiler is seeking to steward the next generation of the workforce.

The new Center for Rural Behavioral Health in Mankato is a hub for training these new students. Multiple programs are in place to help, such as a fellowship to entice enrolled students into the field. One of the other major problems in this battle is the stigma around mental health and how to eliminate it.

But mental health doesn't work that way; you can't defeat long-term depression with just sheer willpower. You need medical help, and a healthy web of friends and family to provide shoulders to lean on.

Teron Buford, director of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, experienced the type of stigma against mental health firsthand.

"You know, people often suffer in silence, especially when the resources are nearby. … These consequences oftentimes lead to avoiding very treatable conditions and diagnoses that folks can work with. But oftentimes it goes underdiagnosed or undiagnosed, which leads to a whole host of other issues," he said.

The best way to fight the stigma is to shed light on it, and it's a long battle. But with the new generation of mental health providers, there's hope. Shunkwiler has dedicated his life to helping others, by guiding the future workforce to make a better tomorrow for all Minnesota.

"What we're doing now is simply just planting seeds that we hope that we can harvest a decade from now," Shunkwiler said.

About this project

This story was created by ThreeSixty Journalism's summer 2023 News Reporter Academy high school students under MinnPost's leadership and in partnership with the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

ThreeSixty Journalism

ThreeSixty Journalism empowers diverse students with valuable leadership and storytelling skills, prepares them for college and career success, and fosters more representative truth telling. Leading the way in developing multicultural storytellers in the media arts industry, ThreeSixty invites highly motivated high school students to discover and amplify their voices through immersive college success programming at the University of St. Thomas College of Arts and Sciences. Launched in 1971 as an Urban Journalism Workshop chapter, the program has been part of St. Thomas for more than 20 years.

To learn more, visit threesixty.stthomas.edu.