2019 News Stories

USF research team trains middle school educators in identifying, improving student mental health problems


TAMPA, Fla. (July 30, 2019) – To address the growing mental health needs of middle school students, USF researchers are partnering with Pasco County Schools to train teachers in how to identify and improve student mental health problems.

The project, titled “Improving Access to Mental Health Services through Teacher Training and Universal Screening,” is led by USF College of Education faculty members Nathaniel von der Embse, PhD, and Shannon Suldo, PhD. The research team will train approximately 600 teachers in Pasco County Schools on how to identify the warning signs of mental health risk in their students.

“Not only should a child feel physically safe at a school, but they should feel emotionally safe as well,” von der Embse said. “This program goes a long way towards meeting that goal.”

The research team is training school leadership in “Youth Mental Health First Aid,” an evidence-based program that reviews child development and helps identify common mental health challenges. The Youth Mental Health First Aid program will be rolled out in schools across the state of Florida over the next five years, von der Embse said, and the program through USF is one of the first in the state to provide research-backed strategies and year-round support for participants.

“We ask so much more of educators than we did 10, 15, or 20 years ago,” von der Embse said. “Educators now are an educator, a parent and a psychologist all wrapped up in one in their classrooms. We know that kids have a lot of mental and behavioral health challenges… and we’re really trying to support teachers in these new roles and capacities that we ask of them.”

Upwards of 20 percent of children will have a significant mental or behavioral health problem, von der Embse said, but in an average school, only 20 percent of those students who show symptoms are identified and provided with services by a mental health professional.

During the school year, training and resources provided by the USF research team will empower teachers to improve student access to school and community-based mental health services through training in data-based decision-making, verbal de-escalation strategies and how to coordinate treatment amongst mental health professionals.

Bayonet Point Middle School Principal Shelley Carrino said teachers building positive relationships with their students is critical to ensuring learning takes place in the classroom, and that the partnership with USF will provide knowledge and additional resources for the school’s staff to put a focus on the mental health and well-being of its students.

“This year, out of the gate, we want to have that strong head start where our staff feels supported, our students feel supported, and that we’re headed in the right direction with trying to meet the needs of all of our students and staff members on campus,” Carrino said.

USF graduate students trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid will be available at the participating schools on a weekly basis to provide customized reports and coaching for teachers. Alexis Sanchez, a USF graduate student who will be working with Bayonet Point, said they will be providing ongoing assistance through weekly coaching that is tailored to the current needs of the school.

“When you provide support that something works, people are more willing to do it,” Sanchez said. “I think this project will help hopefully show that having these ongoing supports and advocating for this to be more of a universal thing in all schools can be really impactful to have those social, emotional, and behavioral supports throughout, and not just at schools that we can help through our funding purposes.” 

The project is supported by a $375,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and will continue through the 2021-22 school year.