The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) recently received approximately $17 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education to help meet the mental health needs of students in the state’s public schools.

The funding comes at a time when school-age children, including teenagers, are facing possibly the worst mental health crisis in the country’s history, thanks in part to the pandemic, social media pressures, and cultural shifts. 

The 2021 N.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a joint project between DPI and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed an upward trend in mental health problems among young people. 

According to a DPI press release, the grants entitled the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration (MHSP) Grant and the School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) Grant Program will help DPI to leverage partnerships with universities and 15 school districts that will increase the number of mental health service providers in high-needs schools, including school counselors, school social workers, and school mental health clinicians.

The grants, which will begin to help students starting this month and continue through 2027, were pursued by DPI last fall. The applications cited data from the newly released 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), presented to the State Board of Education (SBE) on Jan. 4 as the primary need for the funding. Findings included how mental health challenges hurt students’ achievements and showed an ongoing need to address the continued negative impact on students’ mental health post-pandemic. 

“This funding is so important in terms of building capacity for mental health service professionals in schools,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in the release. “As an awardee of both grants, the agency is able to increase mental health support for students in designated North Carolina schools while strengthening the future pipeline of school-based mental health providers through recruitment, retention, and incentives.”

DPI’s Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant, named “Project Adding Direct Support (ADS)”, will serve over 120,000 students in eight school districts, including Pitt, Pender, Wayne, Harnett, Scotland, Alamance-Burlington, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Catawba. 

Project ADS aims to increase the number of licensed school-based mental health providers by a minimum of 60 within five years. Project ADS will incentivize local generalist counselors and social workers to “re-specialize” or complete additional work to become licensed to practice in schools as designated school counselors and/or school social workers.

Project ADS will partner with The University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC), The University of North Carolina-Pembroke (UNCP), and N.C. State University (NCSU), all of which have approved school counseling and school social work licensure programs to accomplish the goal.

In partnership with the universities, Project ADS will recruit, train and re-specialize school-based mental health providers, provide travel stipends for internships in identified local education agencies (LEA), and provide stipends for internship supervisors. The total funding for this grant is approximately $5.54 million across five years.

DPI’s School-Based Mental Health Grant called “Project FAST” will serve approximately 73,000 students in six school districts: Cabarrus, Davidson, Guilford, Randolph, Scotland, and Stanly. Project FAST, which has a similar goal as Project ADS, looks to increase the number of school-based mental health providers to 30 over the project’s five-year period. 

With an emphasis on recruitment, re-specialization, and retention, the project plans to ensure that staff remain in place and provides incentives to professionals to ensure that students’ growing mental health needs are met.

Districts participating in Project FAST will have a project consultant to assist in crafting a plan to increase the number of mental health service providers in their schools based on individual priorities, gaps in services, and current student-to-provider ratios. Districts can select among recruitment mechanisms such as offering stipends to graduate interns, providing tuition assistance and costs associated with re-specialization, and/or offering signing bonuses and supplement increases.

Incentives for extending contracts and providing intensive professional development and/or training opportunities are ways in which retention will be addressed. 

Funding for the grant is approximately $2.84 million beginning in 2023 and $2.37 recurring each calendar year until Dec. 31, 2027, for a total of roughly $12.3 million.

The grants enhance funding that DPI received from the N.C. General Assembly in the 2021 budget that allows for each school district in the state to have one full-time, permanent school psychologist.