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Pediatric Mental Health Initiative Provides Crucial Resources for Rural School Systems

The Pediatric Mental Health Initiative (PMHI) provides free mental health counseling via telehealth to children in Georgia’s rural communities, many of which have limited or no mental health services. By collaborating with Georgia’s rural county school systems, Georgia’s colleges and universities, and Global Partnership for Telehealth (GPT), the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center (GRHIC) is transforming the mental health infrastructure in rural spaces. Mental health is being addressed holistically and equitably, regardless of one’s address or economic status.

GRHIC seized an opportunity to expand mental health services by harvesting existing, often untapped, resources. In the PMHI model, children receive counseling services from supervised graduate students attending the state’s colleges and universities. This helps alleviate the mental health professional workforce shortages. Additionally, it provides future counseling professionals with valuable supervision practicums and internships. Currently the PMHI is active in Ben Hill County Schools, Jefferson County Schools, and Washington County Schools.

During fall 2022, the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative expanded its offerings by hiring Travis Crafter, a licensed professional counselor, to improve the delivery of direct services and care to rural communities in Georgia. Some newly established services include brief crisis intervention, mental health group curriculum development, and program implementation to address mental/emotional and behavioral health concerns within the 120 rural counties.

When death by suicide occurs, it can disrupt the social fabric of the school and larger communities. This is particularly true in close-knit rural communities.

In response to recent events, a Postvention Suicide Toolkit was developed to aid students, administrators, and community members in the aftermath of a death by suicide. This toolkit consists of materials for coping strategies, do’s and don’ts to support grieving individuals, handouts on risk/protective factors, and more. An abbreviated grief tool to address loss beyond suicide was developed and added to the toolkit.

When a school system experiences the loss of a student, educator, or staff member, the needs of the crisis response team, administrative staff, and educators may be overlooked. During a crisis, individuals are still tasked with keeping the schools operational while meeting educational objectives.

For rural county school systems to flourish, all parties who make up the school system must feel supported and be given the necessary tools to heal from losses and to address the daily challenges students face. One solution was to provide administrators, staff, and educators a safe space to process their emotions and cope with the loss through grief groups facilitated by a mental health professional outside of the school system. The group sessions were offered at no additional cost to the school by the staff of the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center. The PMHI provided age-appropriate reading materials and writing journals for students to the affected school system. In collaboration with school counselors and administrators, a grief curriculum was developed to meet students’ needs at each grade level.

For the spring 2023 semester, PMHI plans to increase the clinical mental health workforce by working with other Georgia higher education institutions to implement a volunteer free clinic.