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A KSU degree program aims to fill rural Ohio gaps in mental health care

An arch reads Kent State University. Behind it are the building and trees that make up the entrance to Kent State's campus.
Kent State University
Kent State University's new social work degree program has a focus on rural areas.

Rural Ohio, like much of rural America, has a shortage of behavioral health care professionals.

Increasing demand post-pandemic and dwindling population has made the problem more pronounced in recent years, and Kent State University is hoping to address it with a new degree program.

The Bachelor’s of Social Work launches this fall at the university’s Ashtabula, Salem and Tuscarawas campuses. It will focus on building a workforce to meet small towns’ mental health needs.

“If you don't have interest from people outside of that community, wanting to come in and try and make a difference, people in those rural communities are sometimes left to fend for themselves,” said Matt Butler, the director of the new program.

That’s where Butler hopes the new program can come in. He said he wants to equip people already living in those communities with the certification they need to make a wider impact.

“How great would it be if someone that you already know, someone who's already lived on your street, is the one who's trying to make that street a better place?” Butler said.

More demand, less supply

Butler said rural areas have long struggled with a shortage of behavioral health professionals. Then, COVID-19 hit.

The pandemic triggered an increase in demand for social services, Butler said. At the same time, many professionals in the field retired or changed careers.

A counselor sits and talks to three students.
Kent State Universtiy
Ohio's rural areas don't have enough counselors.

“It’s a real challenge matching up providers with clients in need in good times,” Butler said. “And these are not good times. It's very, very difficult for people to find the right providers.”

The lack of providers has meant longer wait times for care.

“If you're looking for a psychiatrist, I've heard some folks are taking six months, taking a year to find a doctor that meets their needs,” he said. “It gets harder when you're looking for specialty care.”

Unique barriers

The deficit in mental health providers is concentrated in small towns.

That was the case even before the pandemic began, according to a report published in 2021 by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It estimated that around 2.4 million Ohioans lived in communities without enough behavioral health professionals in 2019.

On top of a shortage, Butler said rural areas often don’t have the infrastructure they need to make care accessible. Public transportation, for instance, is virtually nonexistent in some towns.

And, even for the ones with better public transport, it might not be enough to make behavioral health care a realistic option.

“If you don't have interest from people outside of that community, wanting to come in and try and make a difference, people in those rural communities are sometimes left to fend for themselves."
Matt Butler, director of KSU's social work program.

“If you have an hour long counseling session, but you need to wait an hour for the bus to get to you and then an hour on the bus and then do your session and then an hour to get back home, you're talking about four or five hours of your day taken up for a one hour counseling session,” he said.

He said there’s also less financial resources for small towns to invest in mental health care services. Organizations may have the funds for educational materials, but not the staff to implement them into a community.

A rural focus 

Kent State’s new program will be designed specifically with these barriers in mind, Butler said.

“We want to be sure that people are familiar with and comfortable with the values and the ethical pieces and have a level of cultural competency that lets them practice well in those areas,” he said.

Butler said a big part of that will be making sure the program is accessible to students in rural areas – that’s why they chose to run it from three northeast Ohio campuses.

He said the program will also rely on technology to bridge geographical divides, so it can reach those students who want to stay and work in their communities.

“This would give them an opportunity to stay in the places that they love and continue to make them better,” he said. “That is something that I don't think has existed in the Kent system for a while.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.