Increasing Access to Mental Health Services in Schools through Community-Engaged Research: Results from a One-Year Pilot Project

By Powers, Joelle D.; Wegmann, Kate M. et al. | School Social Work Journal, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Increasing Access to Mental Health Services in Schools through Community-Engaged Research: Results from a One-Year Pilot Project


Powers, Joelle D., Wegmann, Kate M., Blackman, Kate F., Swick, Danielle C., School Social Work Journal


Mental health services in schools typically have been restricted to assessment, clinical consultation, and treatment services for students in or being referred to special education (Weist, 2005). However. Weist reports that, with estimated rates of school-aged children with diagnosable mental health conditions as high as 20 percent in the United States (Merikangas et al.. 2010), coupled with low rates of treatment because of multiple barriers such as access and stigma (Stephan, Weist, Katoka, Adelsheim, & Mills, 2007), school-based mental health (SBMH) interventions are increasingly being viewed as worthwhile and necessary efforts. Despite the established need for SBMH, these interventions face numerous obstacles in school systems, including physical space, budget resources, time, and staff (Splett & Maras, 2011). Because of these obstacles and other considerations, collaboration between school systems and mental health systems is frequently employed to meet children's mental health needs (Mellin & Weist, 2011; Weist et al., 2012). As more schools and communities move toward collaborative mental health care models, the information and lessons learned in establishing such partnerships may be of value to other practitioners and communities in their own processes of collaboration.

Successful collaboration between systems in SBMH requires a genuine partnership stemming from shared goals and desired outcomes (Andis et al., 2002). This type of shared partnership is integral to a communityengaged approach, a collaborative orientation to research (Minkler, 2005) that requires shared decision making and commitment among all partners. The partnership extends to all aspects of the process, including planning, intervention, and evaluation (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998).

The current article focuses on an innovative SBMH pilot project that was developed using a community-engaged approach to build a partnership among education, mental health, and university systems. The intention of the pilot project was to create and leverage a multisystem partnership to broker resources and improve outcomes for children and families within the community. Specifically, an urban school district, a local university, and a community mental health local management entity (LME) collaborated to provide SBMH services in an elementary school for one year, followed by an evaluation of the results. A brief review of the community-engaged research and the SBMH model used to inform the study project is provided below, followed by a description of the SBMH pilot project, results of the one-year intervention, and lessons learned from this approach.

Community Engagement

Community engagement can be defined as "the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people" (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). Community engagement is therefore a collaborative approach to research or other efforts that involve the specified community in the entire process (Israel et al., 1998). Israel and colleagues have found that there are multiple iterations and names for communityengaged research, but they all seek to benefit the participants. Because of the collaborative nature of community-engaged research, strong relationships, trust, and commitment among all partners are crucial (Green, Daniel, & Novick, 2001; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003).

Community-engaged research emphasizes recognition of community strengths and encourages people and groups to build on those strengths (Israel et al" 1998; Lasker & Weiss, 2003). Successful communityengaged research requires partnership development, cooperation, and negotiation; collaboration with community partners; and a commitment to addressing local health issues (Minkler, 2005). It is a co-learning approach in which the knowledge of community members is as important as that of the researcher and informs many aspects of the research (Israel et al. …

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