Graduate students researching methods to strengthen mental health training in rural schools

Pictured above from left: Ashley Coburn and Breanna King

Ashley Coburn and Breanna King, third-year graduate students at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), are on their way to becoming licensed psychologists. Before obtaining a doctorate. from the School of Psychology curriculum, they delve into a topic that affects young people across the country, especially those who live in rural areas of the Mountain West: mental health.

According to the National Center for Rural School Mental Health, nearly 20 percent of school-age children experience serious mental health problems, but few receive services, a situation exacerbated in rural settings.

“I did my internship at a rural high school, so I saw firsthand how easy it can be to feel isolated in those areas,” King said.

Both King and Coburn have had experience interacting with students in a high school setting. Through this, they had access to training from the Colorado Department of Education Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA). YMHFA is an eight-hour course that introduces participants to the signs and symptoms of adolescent mental health issues and emphasizes the importance of early intervention.

“It made me a better teacher, especially given the prevalence of mental health issues in schools,” Coburn said.

This experience, along with what the couple is learning at UNC in the Wellbeing in Multilevel Systems of School Psychology (WiMSSY) Research Lab, sparked their passion to do more to support mental health in areas. rural.

“Our studies focus on suicide prevention, so we scour the literature and learn that rural suicide prevention is often overlooked. It’s really disheartening because suicide rates are almost double what they are in urban and suburban areas,” Coburn said.

A grant from the National Council for Mental Wellness helps Coburn and King take action. They were rewardedfrom over 200 applications, a $5,000 grant to support their research project that will improve mental health first aid training and outcomes in rural western mountain towns.

“The idea is to find out if the training already established is as effective in these rural areas or does it need to be modified in some way to better suit these schools,” Coburn said.

Over a two-year period, Coburn and King will identify trainers already certified in YMHFA, have them implement the training in rural schools with students ages 12 to 18 in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New -Mexico, then conduct pre and post surveys and focus groups to see if school staff found it useful or if any changes need to be made.

“We just want to see where the gaps are in this roster and what works well because the roster has strengths as well,” King said.

A problem that Coburn and King have already encountered in some cases is that school districts in rural areas have limited access to resources.

“We find that rural school districts vary in the number of school staff they have,” Coburn said. “For example, a school district has a principal who is also a bus driver, so he can work with 10 people in total.”

That’s why graduate students want to bridge the gap and break down the barriers that rural educators face and equip them with the tools they need to make mental wellness a priority. In King’s experience, just starting a conversation about mental health can be beneficial.

“Even if the students don’t want to talk about it, just let them know an adult is there if they want to open those doors and let the kids know it’s a safe place where they can feel safe and secure. talking openly about everything they’re struggling with is huge,” King said.

King says all it takes is one trusted adult to make a difference in a child’s life.

“I know teachers and school psychologists are all really burnt out, it’s been a tough few years for them, so I think it will do wonders to reinforce that you can change a child’s life and have that training. right in the toolbox to turn to in addition to all the other tools you have in a school setting,” King said.

The duo will publish the results of their research in 2024. Three other graduate students across the country have received the same research grant. When announcing the winners, the Vice President of the National Council for Mental Wellness applauded them all for their commitment to mental wellness.

“These doctoral students have submitted innovative proposals for measuring mental health first aid (MHFA) program outcomes, and their varied academic interests will help us understand the impact of PSSM on diverse communities,” said Deanna Roepke.

– written by Sydney Kern

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