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FIU awarded $6M to boost mental health support for children and youth in Miami-Dade public schools

FIU awarded $6M to boost mental health support for children and youth in Miami-Dade public schools

The federal funds will help prepare FIU graduate students to work as school psychologists and social workers at a time of historic critical need

February 20, 2023 at 10:00am

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded FIU a $6 million grant to help improve access to mental health services for students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS).  

The five-year grant funded through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the Fiscal Year 2022 omnibus appropriations bill will support the FIU/M-DCPS Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Fellowship (Project DIG). Project DIG aims to recruit, prepare and train over 100 highly qualified school-based mental health service providers, such as psychologists and social workers, to help 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 Andy Pham, director and associate professor of school psychology at FIU’s School of Education and Human Development and principal investigator on the grant. "This is good timing as there is a need for more support given recent school shootings." Joining Pham on Project DIG are co-principal investigators Jennifer Abeloff, associate director of social work at FIU's Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, and Philip Lazarus, associate professor of school psychology at FIU’s School of Education and Human Development. 

In a school setting, psychologists and social workers form a support team that helps students and their families navigate anxiety, depression, substance use and suicidal ideation—issues that have been exacerbated over time due to reoccurring school shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic. The support team may also help students who struggle with behavioral challenges or neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or autism.  

In Miami-Dade County, for example, there is approximately one school psychologist for every 1,598 students — the recommended national ratio is one for every 500 students. The situation is even more dire for social workers, with approximately one school social worker for every 2,492 students — the recommended national ratio is one for every 250 students. 

Project DIG will address the shortage crisis head-on by preparing FIU graduate students studying school psychology in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education and social work in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work for employment in M-DCPS post-graduation. As part of the program, students will receive tuition coverage and stipends to help offset school and living expenses as they gain field experience in a public school setting. The program also will cover workshops, training materials and student travel to conferences as well as presentations by mental health experts.

Project DIG will complement the work of M-DCPS, which also was recently funded by the U.S. Department of Education to address shortages of school-based mental health service professionals, focusing on recruiting and retaining credentialed mental health providers from diverse backgrounds.  

"School-based social workers and psychologists are the front line for recognizing and responding to potential traumas," said Abeloff. She added that these 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."  

Pham shared that limited access to mental health support can lead children and youth to face various personal and academic difficulties.  

"They'll have trouble managing their emotions or developing positive relationships with their peers, families and teachers. There's also the risk of potential school dropout," Pham said. "Project DIG will help us boost mental health services for these kids in high-need schools in Miami-Dade, by expanding and diversifying the mental health workforce, so underserved children can learn and develop ways to promote positive wellbeing and have a shot at a brighter future." 

Learn more about Project DIG   

This project supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.