Florida International University (FIU) has received $6 million to help improve access to mental health services for students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS).
The five-year grant came through the U.S. Department of Education (ED) via the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations. The money will support the FIU/M-DCPS Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Fellowship (Project DIG), an effort to recruit and train more than 100 school-based mental health service providers to aid students, particularly those from underserved communities.
"There's a huge need right now given the critical shortages of school psychologists and social workers, not only within Florida but nationwide," said Dr. Andy Pham, director and associate professor of school psychology at FIU’s School of Education and Human Development and the grant’s principal investigator. "This is good timing as there is a need for more support given recent school shootings."
The co-principal investigators are Jennifer Abeloff, associate director of social work, and Dr. Philip Lazarus, associate professor of school psychology.
There is currently a shortage of such mental health service providers. In Miami-Dade County, there is approximately one school psychologist for every 1,598 students — the recommended national ratio is one to 500 – and approximately one school social worker for every 2,492 students — the recommended national ratio is one to 250.
Limited access to mental health support can lead students to face issues with emotion management, relationship development, and school performance, Pham said.
In response, Project DIG aims to prepare FIU graduate students in school psychology and social work for employment in M-DCPS after graduation. Students will receive tuition coverage and stipends to help offset school and living expenses, as well as funding for workshops, training materials, student travel to conferences, and presentations by mental health experts.
"School-based social workers and psychologists are the front line for recognizing and responding to potential traumas," Abeloff said, adding that mental health service providers play an essential role, especially for students from low-income backgrounds or multilingual learners. "We are trying to help the kids who can fall through the cracks, the ones who may not have access to these mental health services outside of school."