New $2.9M Grant Allows Researchers to Expand Mental Health Training Program

A team of UVA researchers will be working with partners in South Carolina and Missouri to deploy and test virtual professional development for school mental health providers.

Audrey Breen

The picture of the mental health crisis for young adolescents in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is becoming clear and it is alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research on COVID impacts on youth mental health published in 2021 and 2022 shows that 37% of high school students reported poor mental health with 44% of students reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and 20% seriously considering attempting suicide.

This crisis is putting increased stressed on schools. While teachers are reporting increases in their students’ mental health needs, evidence suggests that the majority of students receive treatment for these needs in their school setting.

Researchers at the UVA School of Education and Human Development are working to support school-based mental health providers, including school counselors, school psychologists, social workers and school nurses. Michael Lyons, associate professor of clinical and school psychology, and Julia Taylor, associate professor of counselor education, recently published positive findings of a virtual training model designed to help school-based practitioners better meet the mental health needs of their students.

Now, with $2.9M in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lyons will lead an effort to expand the program to 54 middle schools in Virginia, South Carolina and Missouri, working in partnership Sam McQuillian, associate professor of psychology, and Mark Weist, professor, at the University of South Carolina, Keith Herman, Curators’ Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, and with colleagues from UVA EHD and the National Center for Rural School Mental Health. Lyons and colleagues will test the impact of pairing an online screening tool used to identify student mental health needs, the Early Identification System (EIS), with an online learning community, called Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (EHCO), in which school staff and university researchers work together to address school mental health needs.

“This project will provide new opportunities for researchers and school staff to come together to understand, and address, student mental health needs while also rigorously testing the impact of these supports,” said Lyons. “We’ve seen a lot of value created from these partnerships, but there are often barriers to doing this work. We need tools that help facilitate collaboration to directly address the needs facing schools.”

Because both EIS and ECHO are based online, this study will provide the evidence needed for how small and rural communities might use these virtual tools to increase access to evidence-based supports and the schools’ capacity to promote student mental health.

Joining Lyons on this project are UVA EHD colleagues Catherine Bradshaw, professor, Micah Mazurek, Novartis U.S. Foundation Professor of Education, Amanda Nguyen, assistant professor, Heather McDaniel, assistant professor, Julia Taylor, associate professor, Faith Zabek, postdoctoral research associate, and Katy Zeanah, outreach manager.