Auburn College of Education, College of Nursing faculty garner funding to address student mental health

Nearly $3 million award creates program to train school counselors

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Auburn professors in the College of Education and College of Nursing are launching a new collaborative initiative designed to increase mental health services in rural Alabama schools.

A first-year grant award of $352,526 from the U.S. Department of Education and nearly $3 million in expected total funding over five years will allow faculty to create the School Counseling Integrated Program, or SCIP. This program will bring together the distinct skills of school counselors, school nurses and English to speakers of other languages, or ESOL, teachers to address the growing mental health needs of K-12 students.

“SCIP is an integrated and cutting-edge approach to further increase mental health services in school systems — primarily those serving rural and medically underserved children, families and communities in Eastern Alabama and surrounding counties,” said Malti Tuttle, College of Education associate professor, School Counseling program coordinator and SCIP project director.

By working with school counseling graduate students preparing to enter the field, Tuttle and her team are approaching K-12 student mental health in a new and innovative way.

“It’s the collaboration approach in preparing future school counselors to enter the workforce in Alabama that makes this program so unique,” Tuttle said. “In creating this program, we recognized the importance of forming an expectation among our school counseling students that they can most effectively help their K-12 population by collaborating with others in their schools.”

Through SCIP, faculty from three departments in Auburn’s College of Education and the College of Nursing will work with school counseling graduate students, equipping them to meet growing mental health needs in high-need, rural Alabama schools.

“It is an honor to be part of the SCIP program,” said Morgan Yordy, Auburn College of Nursing assistant professor and SCIP project co-director. “School nurses encounter situations when students present physical symptoms of a mental health challenge. School nurses are often the first point of contact to address student mental health.

“As a faculty member in the College of Nursing, I can train student counselors to work in tandem with the school nurse to meet the needs of the student. Such training can help provide appropriate support, and with school nurses qualified to recognize symptoms, the two can then develop a plan to aid students and their families.”

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted student mental health challenges in K-12 schools, which have been exacerbated by nationwide school counselor shortages and heavy workloads. Schools in underserved areas and underrepresented populations — often found in rural areas — have even greater need.

“Mental health is as important as physical health,” said Chih-Hsuan Wang, College of Education professor and project evaluator for SCIP. “I hope this project can provide an opportunity for those who want to be school counselors with a way to make their dream come true, help our K-12 schoolteachers and students, as well as bring awareness of the importance of mental health.”

SCIP also will have a significant impact on the multilingual student population in Alabama with the inclusion of ESOL teachers.

“Often, ESOL teachers, school counselors and school nurses are individually advocating for multilingual students in their respective roles,” said Jamie Harrison, College of Education associate professor and SCIP project co-director. “This program will bring these three unique school roles together to better understand the needs of multilingual students from multiple perspectives and thus extend their individual advocacy efforts.”

Auburn’s land-grant mission inspires the College of Education to seek funding for this type of collaboration, research and outreach, according to Rodney Greer, College of Education assistant dean for research.

“We know we are better together,” he said. “We’re better problem-solvers, researchers, academicians and more effective at meeting the needs in our community when we approach the challenges of our day as a team. SCIP is a perfect example of dedicated faculty, from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, working together to make a difference in our region and state.”

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