WVU addresses youth mental health crisis and critical provider shortage with innovative in-school programming

WVUToday

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

Rawn Boulden, assistant professor and project lead, Christine Schimmel, associate professor and University faculty ombudsperson, and Kim Floyd, associate professor and interim associate school director — all in the School of Counseling and Well-Being — will guide the rollout of a new program designed to put more counselors in schools across West Virginia, starting in Harrison County.

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

“West Virginia is among the nation’s leaders in adverse childhood experiences,” Boulden said. “Add a global pandemic, pervasive racial tensions and other challenges to youth mental health, and you’ve just kicked an already existing mental health crisis into the next gear. We’re currently seeing elevated rates of kids 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 youth hospitalization rates have skyrocketed.”

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

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

The Fellows Program will address those shortages by placing six advanced counseling program graduate students from WVU in Harrison County schools each year. They’ll work in the school system during their studies and for two years after graduation as part of a built-in service obligation.

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

In addition to the managing the fellowship program, Boulden and Schimmel are working to train 625 personnel in 20 West Virginia public schools in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Their outreach efforts are made possible by a previously announced five-year, $500,000 federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and are designed to teach adults how to help adolescents experiencing mental health or addiction challenges or crisis. 

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

Schimmel said she is hopeful both grants will provide much-needed support to students in the state.

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

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