WVU mental health experts will use more than $5 million in federal grants to increase the number of mental health care providers in West Virginia schools at a time when many school-aged residents of the state experience higher rates of suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness.
(WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

Mental health experts based in West Virginia University College of Applied Human Sciences will soon be going to public schools in parts of the Mountain State to work to address critical and growing mental health needs in children.

Rawn Boulden, assistant professor and project leader, Christine Schimmel, associate professor and university faculty ombudsman, and Kim Floyd, associate professor and acting associate school principal – all in the School of Counseling and Wellbeing – will guide the rollout of a new program designed to put more counselors in West Virginia schools, starting with Harrison County.

Over the next five years, the Mountaineer School-Based Mental Health Fellows program will be funded by a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“West Virginia is among the leaders in the nation in negative childhood experiences,” Boulden said. “Add a global pandemic, pervasive racial tensions and other challenges to youth mental health, and you have just kicked an already existing mental health crisis into high gear. We are currently seeing high rates of children reporting suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, and feelings of loneliness Nearly half of all high school students report feeling sad more than half the time and hospitalization rates for young people have risen sharply.

Boulden said that while the shortage of mental health providers in schools and communities is “significant” and growing everywhere, the Health Resources and Services Administration has identified Harrison County as having one of the greatest needs. of the state, which is why the team will start working there. .

“The school counselor to student ratio in Harrison County is one counselor to every 348 students, school psychologists work at a ratio of one to 1,440, and county social workers administer one to every 10,086 students,” said Boulden.

The scholarship program will address these shortages by placing six graduate students from WVU’s Advanced Counseling Program in Harrison County schools each year. They will work in the school system during their studies and for two years after graduation as part of an integrated service obligation.

“From my experience in rural special education, we know that trauma can influence the way a child learns, interacts with peers and adults, and behaves during the teaching times of their school day. school,” Floyd said. “Having additional mental health professionals at school to support students from diverse backgrounds is amazing. I am extremely excited for the students and families of Harrison County and look forward to every step of the process that will provide needed support to the community.

In addition to managing the scholarship program, Boulden and Schimmel are working to train 625 staff members at 20 West Virginia public schools in youth mental health first aid. Their outreach efforts are made possible by a federal grant of $500,000 over five years previously announced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and are designed to teach adults how to help teens struggling or experiencing mental health or mental health crises. substance addiction.

“There has always been trauma, addiction and sadness in our children’s lives,” Boulden said. “But now there is also a growing thirst to learn how to help. It’s so rewarding in these trainings when you see the light bulb go out and know that these participants are ready to make a difference in the lives of children across the state.

Schimmel said she hopes the two grants will provide much-needed support to students in the state.

“Helping improve mental health outcomes for students with projects like these is just one way WVU fulfills its land-grant mission and works in service of the state. Our team is proud to be part of this mission,” she said.

-WVU-

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