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MANKATO — In class during her freshman year at Minnesota State University, Adia Granberg remembers learning about the diversity gap in behavioral health care.

Whether it’s licensed drug and alcohol counselors, psychologists, marriage or family therapists, or other professions in the field, reports consistently find the workforces to be about 90% white. The gap between white providers and providers of color can be even wider in rural areas.

Hearing about the lack of representation in the field contributed to Granberg, now a junior at MSU, pursuing a career in licensed alcohol and drug counseling.

“That was something that drew me to the major,” she said. “ ... It made me think I could have some influence or help close that gap.”

Granberg joined a diverse group of students and professionals on campus Tuesday in encouraging more young people, particularly young people of color, to consider careers in behavioral health. A noon event included high school students meeting with her and the others to learn about the field, followed by an evening panel geared more toward college students.

The events came about after MSU health science professor Thad Shunkwiler — who Granberg credited with speaking to her class about the issue when she was a freshman — earned a $3,000 grant from Mayo Clinic Health System.

The grant was awarded to support efforts to close the racial gap among providers.

A 2018 workforce report from the Minnesota Department of Health found 97% of providers outside Minnesota’s seven-county metro area are white, according to Shunkwiler. Speaking to the group of 18 students from Central, East and West high schools Tuesday, he said the industry needs to do better.

“And the only way we’re going to do better is by educating students like yourself about these career fields,” he said to the group.

Representation matters in behavioral health, he said afterward, because so much of whether treatment or counseling will be successful comes down to relationships between providers and patients.

“So much of it is understanding one another,” he said. “When somebody is white, they don’t have that appreciation and full understanding of someone who comes from a diverse background.”

Many of the problems people of color face are systemic, racially charged issues, Granberg said, which contribute to their mental health or substance use conditions. Connecting them to a white clinician is great and OK, she added, but the clinician would be learning about what the patient is going through rather than having lived through similar experiences themselves.

“Having more of a diverse group of counselors would really provide a whole different type of care that’s more personal and a lot more understanding,” she said.

Not all students come to campus knowing exactly what major they want to pursue. Tuesday’s events were about introducing students to the information they’d need if behavioral health work interests them, said Kenneth Reid, MSU’s director of African American Affairs.

“Within diversity, equity and inclusion, we looked forward to providing that opportunity to have access to information to allow them to make informed decisions,” he said.

Aubrianna Rentschler, a junior at West High School, was one of the 18 students attending the noon event. She’s considering nursing, psychiatry and other professions where she could help people, and said it was informative to hear from professionals in the field.

Drew Fellenz, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in Owatonna, hadn’t considered going into his field until he was 20. He said many people just aren’t aware of it, so education events for students like the ones on Tuesday help.

Although burnout is an all too common reality in mental health professions, he shared what he finds highly rewarding about the work. The feeling of seeing a patient actively make positive changes in their life is hard to describe, he said.

There’s elation and satisfaction with seeing them go through that “aha moment,” Fellenz said. “That’s a life-changing experience.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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