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Collaboration Brings Mental Health Counseling Services to Rural Georgia

Pictured: Joan Anderson, Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Loren Nix, Global Partnership for Telehealth, Christie Cook, Ben Hill Elementary School, Brad Wells, Global Partnership for Telehealth, Jahyna Anderson, Ben Hill Elementary School, Wanda Kimbrell, Ben Hill County School System

On Wednesday, October 27, 2021, the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center (GRHIC), in partnership with the Ben Hill County Board of Education, Mercer University College of Professional Advancement, and Global Partnership for Telehealth, provided the first virtual counseling session for Ben Hill Elementary School students through the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative. This Initiative delivers virtual counseling services to students and their families. The program also provides mental health screening tools and suicide prevention training to educators, community members and students. The collaborative efforts of these organizations designed the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative to address a key issue in Ben Hill County where there are currently no licensed mental health providers.

The Ben Hill County School System, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, recognized a significant gap in community resources and the strain on students’ mental health. When approached by the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to explore a partnership offering virtual counseling to alleviate these issues, they felt this would be an invaluable resource to their students.

Wanda Kimbrell, of Ben Hill County School System, had this to say after the first telehealth counseling session: “I truly know in my heart that this is going to be life-changing event in the life of this child and a stepping stone in helping more and more students in Ben Hill County.” Kimbrell, Special Education and Pupil Services Director, continued, “To be part of such a meaningful project is a blessing, and one that I am highly thankful for and so happy to be a part of. The entire team included personnel from Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Mercer University, Global Partnership for Telehealth, and Ben Hill County Schools have all worked so hard to make this a reality and we finally saw the fruits of that work on Wednesday. I have found myself looking ahead to next week when the next sessions will occur, and we set more students on the path to mental health wellness.”

The counseling sessions are conducted by graduate students under the direct supervision of the licensed clinical professionals of the College of Professional Advancement and are provided virtually with the technical support of Global Partnership for Telehealth. These counseling sessions greatly benefit the graduate students as well. This initiative provides meaningful practicum and internship experiences for these clinicians by allowing faculty and students to work with underserved populations in rural Georgia as well as gain experience in telehealth.

“I have watched with great interest and admiration as the rural health initiative has moved forward to improve access to medical care for the underserved in our state. Our dream has been to find some way to increase access to outstanding mental health care for this same population,” said Priscilla Danheiser, Ph.D., dean, College of Professional Advancement. She continued, “Our pilot program that just began is the first step in realizing that dream. And, what a wonderful opportunity for Mercer’s extraordinary graduate students in clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, and clinical rehabilitation counseling! We are proud of this collaborative work with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center.”

“The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center is committed to developing sustainable solutions that improve access and quality healthcare in rural underserved counties across Georgia,” said Jean Sumner, M.D., dean, Mercer University School of Medicine. “This is an excellent example of what can be accomplished with community involvement and partnership from the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center.”

The elementary school is currently piloting the program. There will be full implementation available in four Ben Hill County Schools in the Spring of 2022. The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Mercer College of Professional Advancement, and Global Partnership for Telehealth would like to see other communities with mental health service disparities replicate this program. Several counties have expressed interest in the program for future implementation. If you have any questions about the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative, or if you would like more information for your community, contact the GRHIC at 478-301-4700.