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UNI lands $2.5M grant to grow school mental health supports
Mental health can impact student success
CEDAR FALLS — The University of Northern Iowa will be using a $2.5 million federal grant in a “grow your own” effort to increase the number of school psychologists statewide.
“School psychologists are key to supporting students, educators and families,” UNI’s school psychology program coordinator Nicole Skaar said in a statement. “Due to their unique training, school psychologists are able to support the whole child in addition to the educational system in which the child develops.”
The grant builds on a UNI school psychology program launched in 2019 that's graduated four students, with five more in progress.
“School psychologists are key, school-based mental health providers, providing both direct and indirect mental health supports to students,” Skaar said.
Best practice for K-12 schools is to offer one psychologist per 500 students, but Iowa has one per 1,900 students, with its outlook “worsening,” according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
In some parts of the state, the situation is more dire — as in southeast Iowa, where the ratio is one psychologist per 4,379 students, according to the Great Prairie Area Education Agency, which serves the six-region area.
The U.S. Department of Education money will enable UNI to work with Great Prairie, Central River, and Northwest area education agencies — representing 52 of Iowa’s 99 counties — to train 15 school psychologists over the next five years.
Candidates for the grant program must be either K-12 educators or in a related field with a master’s degree. While completing the three-year program — which involves two years of mostly online coursework and a one-year internship — students can keep working full-time.
Once complete, students will have an educational specialist degree and must commit to working in their Iowa area education agency for at least three years — with UNI’s School Psychology program boasting a 100 percent placement rate.
Mental health impact
One in six Americans between the ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder annually, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
“Mental health struggles can also impact student success,” according to a UNI news release. “NAMI reports that 37 percent of high school students with a mental illness who are 14 or older drop out of school.”
Half of all lifetime mental illnesses begins by age 14, with 75 percent starting by age 24, according to NAMI. Among 10- to 14-year-olds, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
Among those in the 12 to 17 age range, 3 million had “serious thoughts of suicide” in 2020, according to NAMI, reporting a 31 percent increase in mental health-related emergency room visits that year.
“More school psychologists mean children and teens can be better supported,” according to UNI.
University of Iowa supports
In hopes of helping Iowa educators handle the rise in mental health needs — including those who can’t or don’t want to become counselors or psychologists — the University of Iowa in 2021 partnered with the Iowa Department of Education to launch a new Scanlan Center for School Mental Health.
That center offers crisis response services, face-to-face and virtual training, professional development, teacher coaching, strategic planning, needs assessments, social-emotional learning program evaluation, and implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports.
It’s funded with $20 million the Iowa Department of Education received in pandemic dollars from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund within the CARES Act.
“Mental health and social-emotional learning needs among students and educators in Iowa were on the rise before COVID-19,” according to the Scanlan Center.
The center’s mission is to “improve the outcomes for Iowa’s youth by enhancing mental health literacy, reducing stigma, increasing workforce capacity, conducting rigorous and impactful research, and implementing a continuum of evidence-based supports.”
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