UC Santa Barbara Gevirtz Graduate School of Education and three other universities have been awarded a four-year, $10.4 million federal contract from the U.S. Department of Education to launch and operate a national center to expand the nation’s school-based mental health workforce of school psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and other practitioners.

As part of a national school mental health collaborative, UCSB, along with University of Wisconsin Madison, University of South Florida and University of Iowa will contribute school mental health expertise and resources to ensure the success of the new center called METRICS (Mental Health Evaluation, Training, Research, and Innovation Center for Schools).

The team from UCSB Gevirtz School’s Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology includes Professor Erin Dowdy; Michael Furlong, distinguished professor emeritus; and Jon Goodwin, and Arlene Ortiz, assistant teaching professors.

“We are excited to collaborate with other leading institutions and scholars focused explicitly on school mental health,” said Dowdy. “We recognize the tremendous need, both locally and nationally, to invest significant energy to improve the well-being of children and youth in the place they are most likely to receive mental health services.”

“At UCSB, we hope to shift the conversation away from a focus on distress, towards an emphasis on wellness and student strengths,” said Goodwin. “We hope that our work on METRICS will be focused on prevention and early intervention, prior to students having significant symptoms of distress.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country have seen an increase in mental health concerns among their students, according to the Department of Education (DoE).

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other national child and adolescent health care organizations in 2021 declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health and emphasized the need for expanded school-based mental health care.

In May 2022, the DoE reported 70 percent of public schools saw an increase in the percentage of their students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the pandemic, with 76 percent of schools also reporting an increase in staff voicing concerns about their students showing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that between 2011 and 2021 past-year chronic sadness (lasting two or more weeks) increased from 36% to 57% for female- and 21% to 29% for male-identifying adolescents.

The DoE is making major investments in programs designed to increase the number and diversity of mental health professionals in schools.

In spring of 2023, UCSB Gevirtz School received a $5.3 million grant from DoE to train school psychologists and other professionals to promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (known as the JEDI Project  https://bit.ly/3FmCqrq) in mental health services at schools.

“METRICS will provide needed support to other school-based mental health and mental health services professionals, which are focused on increasing the number of mental health providers in schools, like the JEDI project,” said Ortiz.

The National Association of School Psychologists estimates that 65,000 more school psychologists are needed to provide students with adequate and equitable mental health services, and there are similar shortages of school social workers and school counselors.

METRICS will contribute to the national initiative to strengthen school mental health services by supporting nearly 300 grants totaling more than $188 million awarded by DoE over the past two years to education agencies, school districts, and universities.

“Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on child and adolescence mental health have heightened awareness of the need to increase the availability of prevention and intervention services, particularly in school settings,” said Furlong. “Clearly, a prerequisite to providing increased mental health services in schools is to increase the pool of qualified providers.

“This project aims to support educational agencies and training programs and universities’ vital efforts to recruit and train the next generation of school mental health professionals.”

For more, visit www.Education.ucsb.edu.