University of South Florida

College of Education

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Professor with student

The School Mental Health Collaborative (SMHC), a new research center launches at the USF College of Education

With an influx of over 15 million dollars in grants in the last 18 months and a new research center designation, the School Mental Health Collaborative (SMHC) Center at the USF College of Education is rapidly growing and changing the model of school mental health support for students in Florida. 

The center located on the Tampa campus, utilizes a prevention approach with a resilience and well-being focus to address the student mental health crisis. “Getting out in front and employing prevention practices to reduce mental health problems of students is a radically different model,” said Nate von der Embse, co-director of the SMHC Center.

Responding to a mental health crisis

USF student with elementary student

According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), almost 20% of youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder; however, only 20% of students exhibiting symptoms are identified and subsequently receive intervention services.

The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 15.6% of Florida high school students reported that they seriously considered attempting suicide, while 7.9% reported having attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. Since nearly 80% of all mental health services for children are delivered within the school setting, it is critical to develop effective school-based strategies to help our youth in need.

A new model for student mental health care

Dr. Nate von der Embse speaking at an event

“There will never be enough school psychologists, counselors and social workers for one-to-one care of students,” said von der Embse. “We have to rethink, reconceptualize how mental health services are provided in schools. The old model was to wait for a student to exhibit significant psychological distress, provide intensive supports and then put them back in the same environment. Now, we are providing professional development to educators and school mental health practitioners at the district level to put systems in place to improve the whole school environment.”

“The center works closely with districts to install a dual factor model of mental health, leading with building wellness and resiliency in students and secondarily, reducing mental health symptoms,” said David Wheeler, new director of the SMHC Center.
“The SMHC Center at the USF College of Education is emerging as the singular source for prevention for student mental health services in Florida, with a burgeoning national network with partners across the U.S.,” said von der Embse.

Growth of the SMHC Center

SMHC Group Photo

The SMHC was first established in 2019 by a group of researchers at the University of South Florida and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of the collaborative is to partner with research centers across the U.S. with a shared mission and vision that will improve access to school mental health services. 

SMHC co-directors von der Embse, Shannon Suldo and Evan Dart submitted a proposal to establish the center, and it was approved by University of South Florida President Rhea Law on Nov. 29, 2022. The Board of Governors was notified, and a letter from the State University System of Florida was sent detailing that the SMHC was now a new research center on Dec. 8, 2022.

Currently, SMHC staff are providing technical assistance in four of the largest school districts in the U.S.—Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties—impacting the mental health care of over a half million students.
The SMHC Center facilitates research to practice partnerships between USF researchers and schools in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, while shaping policy and promoting best practices in student mental health services at the district, state and national levels.

The center has hired a full-time director, doctoral level staff and multiple graduate research assistants, and will be hiring more full-time staff and support personnel in the coming months. The SMHC is committed to recruiting and retaining trainees from underrepresented and marginalized groups and to intentionally partnering with urban and under-resourced public schools. 

Learn more about the School Mental Health Collaborative here

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.