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Three UND colleges unite for new research initiative

by Walter Criswell of UND TodayMultidisciplinary initiative promises to bolster behavioral health support in rural North Dakota

four people seated on couch
Tiffany Russell (left to right), Kelly McShane, Karla Fehr and Ethan Dahl serve as core members of UND’s new Behavioral Health Initiative. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Behavioral health disorders, which range from substance use disorders to suicidality and anxiety, directly impact 20 percent of adults in the United States. Research in the area is broad as it encompasses not only emotional, social and psychological health, but also a holistic approach to treating mental and physical disorders.

While the field is not new, there’s been growing interest in integrating behavioral health research and care into mental health treatment, too. Altru Hospital, for example, recently invested $380 million into the construction of a behavioral health facility in Grand Forks.

UND also is investing in this area through the recent formation of the Behavioral Health Initiative. The tri-college effort seeks to recruit faculty to collaborate on research, grants and programming focused on addressing behavioral health concerns in North Dakota.

A wide net to support rural North Dakota

UND’s College of Arts & SciencesCollege of Education & Human Development and College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines are the three colleges that make up the core of the initiative. In 2022, they began meeting with their deans and faculty to discuss the best way to start.

 

Joelle Ruthig

Joelle Ruthig, chair of the Department of Psychology at CAS, said that forming the initiative showed the benefits of interdisciplinary work.

“I was part of the beginnings of it with former CEHD dean Cindy Juntunen, CAS dean Brad Rundquist and CNPD dean Maridee Shogren,” she said. “It was a positive experience. Everyone had different perspectives from their own areas of the cluster and learned from each other. That’s the beauty of these cross-discipline initiatives.”

“We spent a lot of time shaping things and envisioning who the director would be, and we were lucky enough to land Kelly McShane,” Ruthig said.

McShane joined as director of behavioral health research in the Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development last year. She said that initiatives like this aren’t new to UND, and that there is an existing framework from initiatives such as the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and the National Security Initiative.

In part, the BHI grew out of the success of the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center and the Addiction Technology Transfer Center. Thomasine Heitkamp, research developer at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and former CNPD faculty member, was instrumental in bringing those grants to UND and was involved in conceptualizing the BHI.

McShane said BHI is distinct in that it focuses more broadly on rural community behavioral health, allowing for the involvement of a wider range of disciplines. Her initial meetings with faculty around campus revealed that focusing on one behavioral health topic would restrict the initiative.

“One of the first things I did was set up meetings with different departments to see what their ties to behavioral health would be and what they’d be interested in,” she said. “We want to keep it broad so we can bring in faculty with different interests and specialties who are doing work related to behavioral health.”

This approach, she said, encourages collaborative research and the formation of interdisciplinary teams. It also offers more opportunities for UND researchers to receive funding.

“At the federal level, they’re looking for interdisciplinary and collaborative teams for funding opportunities,” McShane said. “It also allows us to have more people with more expertise on proposals, giving us the capacity to go after some of the larger opportunities.”

Glenda Lindseth

CNPD’s history primes it for collaboration

Fittingly, a history of collaboration already exists in the core colleges that make up the strategic initiative. CNPD has shown the strength of cross-campus collaborations related to behavioral health, said Glenda Lindseth, a professor of nursing who has a 20-year history of behavioral health research.

“When I think of it, almost every department has tried to do something with us; public health, counseling, psychology and biomedical engineering, to name a few,” she said. “A lot of the work we do wouldn’t be as successful if we didn’t reach out and work with other disciplines across campus.”

CNPD dean Maridee Shogren’s program Don’t Quit the Quit, which provides care for pregnant and postpartum patients with substance use disorders, has collaborated with the CEHD-housed ATTC to offer training and informational sessions for rural nurses, showing the strength of applying multidisciplinary approaches to topics related to behavioral health.

Lindseth says CNPD’s broad spectrum of disciplines can apply to behavioral health in other crucial ways. Existing research in gerontologynutrition and dietetics and the Department of Social Work’s “cutting edge” research in financial interdependence and wellness will all benefit from the collaborative infrastructure the BHI offers.

New CEHD faculty off to a great start

In the past year, the Behavioral Health Initiative has hired dedicated faculty members at CEHD and CAS, who are dedicating their research specifically to behavioral health. Karla Fehr and Ethan Dahl, two faculty members in CEHD, were hired in the past year to focus on behavioral health research.

Fehr, an associate professor of education, health and behavior studies at CEHD, specializes in pediatric behavioral health research. She says that the initiative’s focus on collaboration is necessary for this area of research.

“Behavioral health is multifaceted. There are a lot of different pieces when we’re looking at potential problems in someone’s behavior,” Fehr said. “It often has to be multidisciplinary when you’re trying to address all of the different factors, so approaching it like this is really about optimizing health outcomes for people in our region.”

She mentioned that having a resource such as BHI streamlines finding other faculty members to collaborate within academic institutions. It’s helped to break down some of the barriers between disciplines.

“At a big institution, it’s hard to know what work everybody is doing. It becomes difficult to create those connections organically,” she said. “With the initiative, we’re creating an environment with a central focus that we can align around. It makes collaboration a lot easier and the research more comprehensive.”

Ethan Dahl, also an assistant professor of education, health and behavior studies at CEHD, agreed. He added that McShane has been instrumental in facilitating connections across campus.

“The initiative is sort of forcing us to think more collaboratively, and Kelly has really helped to make that easier,” Dahl said. “She’s been orchestrating things and putting pieces together when we think that there’s something that could add to the research. If she finds a funding call that fits one or two of us, but we’re missing someone with specific expertise, she’ll reach out to other colleges and connect us.”

Dahl already has found success in the field acting as principal investigator for North Dakota Healthcare, Opportunity, Prevention and Education in Suicide prevention — more commonly known as ND HOPES. Funded with the help of Heitkamp, the grant was the first program funded as part of the BHI.

ND HOPES, which supports existing mental health resources and hotlines in North Dakota, will receive $5 million over five years. Importantly, it’s a collaborative effort between UND and external state agencies and health care providers, one of the core strategies the initiative hopes to incorporate in its work.

“That’s so much of the work we’re doing with the initiative,” Dahl said. “There are a lot of places around the state doing work in behavioral health, and we want to think about how we can help and partner with each other to meet the needs of the state.”

CAS, BHI plan to bring resources, support to N.D.

Brad Rundquist

Brad Rundquist, dean of CAS, said that the college’s faculty are eager to join CEHD and CNPD in the collaborative initiative. Additionally, he said its formation marks an important step in using research in the field to help communities around the state.

“Increasing UND’s capacity to conduct behavioral health research and train behavioral health professionals is vital to the vibrancy of our state and region,” he said. “We look forward to using these opportunities to expand UND’s reach and efficacy in positively impacting the region’s behavioral health workforce.”

Tiffany Russell, the third BHI faculty hire and assistant professor of psychology at CAS, specializes in substance misuse and LGBTQ+ mental health research. She’s also a UND alumna who returned to UND this fall after completing her postdoctoral research at Harvard and practicing as a licensed psychologist in Texas.

Like Fehr and Dahl, Russell believes that BHI is the best approach to tackling behavioral health research. Connecting with faculty from the medical school and counseling department are crucial for providing wider access to patients, she said.

“I firmly believe that collaboration is the future of behavioral health sciences,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to see the investment UND has made to researching behavioral health and helping some of the underserved communities in the state.”

Russell said that the BHI was a major factor in her return to North Dakota. Major efforts like BHI aren’t common in academia, and she’s already found success in connecting with other UND researchers.

“It’s unique to be hired into a cluster like this, where collaborations are built in,” she said. “And even though I’ve only been here since August, I’ve been given ample opportunity to meet new collaborators and start planning projects. We’ve already submitted a grant proposal.”

BHI to make UND major player in a critical field

Though the BHI is still in its infancy, McShane says they are expanding their reach to involve as many faculty as possible. After all, there’s a wealth of opportunities in the field.

“There’s a lot of need in North Dakota around these topics, especially in rural communities, where they tend to have higher rates of suicide and substance abuse,” she said. “There is a lot of potential to address these issues, and as we’ve been submitting proposals and creating teams, I think we can grow this and make a name for UND in behavioral health. Not just in the state, but nationally and internationally too.”

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