How the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health is improving outcomes for Iowa’s youth and educators
In November 2021, the community of Fairfield was already reeling from a recent suicide when high school Spanish teacher Nohema Graber was allegedly murdered by two students.
“We wanted to make sure that our staff was just as safe as our kids in how they felt, so we were trying to bring in as much triage as we could to help,” says Laurie Noll, superintendent of the Fairfield Community School District.
To help students and staff process these traumas, the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health provided crisis stabilization, mental health support, professional development, and clinical assistance for the district’s students and teachers.
“You can see the trust from our staff and our students with the therapists and doctors that have been coming,” Noll says. “The expertise and the work from the center are truly helping.”
Fairfield isn’t alone. Serious mental health issues are increasing in schools across the state and nation.
Four out of 25 students (ages 12 to 17) in a U.S. classroom have a mental health disorder, with less than half receiving treatment. One in 13 Iowa high school students has attempted suicide one or more times. Students are not alone, as educators are feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, with 59% of U.S. teachers and 48% of U.S. principals say they’re burned out, and 70% reporting they have considered leaving the field this year.
The center, formerly the Iowa Center for School Mental Health, was created on June 23, 2021, when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that $20 million in federal pandemic relief dollars would be allocated to fund the state’s first-ever school mental health center.
“The center is an excellent model for higher education partnerships with state agencies to help meet the state’s greatest challenges,” says University of Iowa College of Education Dean Daniel Clay.
A partnership between the University of Iowa College of Education and the Iowa Department of Education, the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health launched with an ambitious mission – to provide social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological services to all of Iowa’s schools across 99 counties, not only to aid in COVID-19 recovery but also to build state capacity for immediate and future delivery of mental health supports across the state.
“In launching the center, our goal was to be intentional about how we add value to the remarkable work already being done in Iowa,” says Allison Bruhn, executive director of the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health and special education professor. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the Area Education Agencies, the mental health disability regions, and various school mental health stakeholders across the state to identify gaps, areas of strength, and the biggest opportunities to make a difference.”
In just one year, the center served more than 200 PreK-12 schools, districts, and organizations, engaged more than 3,000 educators, administrators, and school counselors through its professional development offerings, distributed more than $1 million in research grant funding, and provided more than 600 students and educators with therapy and intervention services, most through the center’s work with Fairfield Community School District.
A training ground for current educators and future school mental health professionals
One of the primary charges of the center is to serve as a training ground, preparing current educators and future school mental health professionals to nurture the mental and emotional well-being of all students.
In year one, the center delivered more than 50 free professional development opportunities, including an eight-part Social-Emotional-Behavioral-Health (SEBH) webinar series offered for licensure renewal credits. Mindfulness/yoga, assessment techniques, suicide prevention, community-building pedagogy, and mental health first aid workshops were among other options.
One SEBH webinar series participant shares, “Throughout all eight webinars, I gained so much knowledge and great information that I can bring back to my school and use in my teaching. The session that stuck with me the most, and I felt connected most with my students was Trauma Informed Social-Emotional Learning. I recognized many of my students struggle with trauma, and that session gave me the knowledge, tools, and skills to be able to help them to cope.”
One of the center's most visible and far-reaching professional development events was the 2021 Iowa BEST Summit. Hosted in partnership with the Iowa Department of Education, the Iowa BEST Summit brought together more than 1,600 educators, administrators, and service providers in Des Moines, Iowa, in November for a free two-day conference. Sessions focused on improving the mental well-being of students, engaging families and communities, and creating positive, safe school climates.
In addition to equipping current and future educators with evidence-based professional learning, the center is working to combat the severe shortage of mental health providers.
The National Council for Mental Wellbeing reported that 77% of counties in the United States are experiencing a severe shortage of mental health providers. As a state, Iowa ranks lower than the national average for the number of mental health providers per 100,000 population. Iowa has 181mental health providers per 100,000 compared to the national average of 284.
“We can’t increase access to care unless we diversify and develop the school mental health workforce,” says Bruhn. “That is why our center’s work is rooted in training future educators, social workers, school counselors, school psychologists, and researchers with the hope they will stay within the state after they graduate.”
During the 2021-2022 academic year, the center funded nine graduate research assistants to assist faculty with interdisciplinary school mental health research projects. Two additional venues will roll out this year, including a multi-disciplinary clinic and a Workforce Expansion Initiative that will provide funding and training for 17 graduate/doctoral students.
Research drives school mental health innovation
Research is at the core of the center’s mission. By conducting rigorous cutting-edge SEBH research and funding other university and statewide projects, the center aims to equip schools with actionable best practices.
A grant competition headlined the center’s 2021-22 research activities. In June 2022, the center announced $1 million in grant funding to four research teams from Iowa State University (2), Northern Iowa University (1), and the University of Iowa (1) that support interventions to improve social, emotional, behavioral, or psychological outcomes in Iowa’s PreK-12 schools.
“These projects will not only help identify what works best for Iowa schools, but they will also spur innovative, evidence-based school
mental health tools, practices, and experiences that educators can directly apply in the classroom,” says Gerta Bardhoshi, director of research and training for the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health.
The center’s 20-plus affiliated faculty represent state and national experts active in school mental health research, training, and service in diverse disciplines such as medicine, nursing, public health, neuroscience, psychology, counseling, social work, special education, and law.
One such project is the Iowa School Mental Health Initiative. The center granted $259,391 to a team of three affiliated faculty to develop and test a mental health awareness curriculum for K-12 educators and parents. Education professionals and parents will learn to recognize signs and symptoms of serious mental illness and emotional disturbance, implement crisis de-escalation and stabilization techniques, and practice self-care strategies.
Expanding to higher education
While PreK-12 youth and educator mental health was an initial focus for the center, higher education was added to its portfolio in February 2022, extending mental health support to college/university faculty, staff, and students. The center will initially focus its efforts at the University of Iowa with the vision to move it to higher education statewide.
The higher education arm is led by Barry Schreier, former director of the University of Iowa Counseling Center, licensed counseling psychologist, and 2022 University of Iowa Improving Our Workplace Awardee.
Schreier engaged in more than 25 listening sessions with campus and faculty leaders to identify the greatest areas of need. Additionally, he headed a cross-campus Mental Health Postvention Implementation team of eight faculty and staff, activating a multi-channel campus campaign and delivered recommendations related to supporting university/college faculty, staff, and student well-being.
In June, Clay was awarded a University of Iowa P3 grant for $700,000 over three years to develop and implement interventions to address campus-based mental health issues. Schreier will lead this initiative. Through this grant, the center will continue to expand Kognito mental health and suicide prevention training on campus. Already more than 20,000 students, staff, and faculty have been trained in the first three years. The opportunity to expand training, especially to faculty and staff, provides a necessary next challenge.
Just the beginning
Year two is about deepening collaboration and shared action. Plans include the opening of the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health Clinic in downtown Iowa City, professional learning that prioritizes PreK-12 educator and college/faculty wellness, delivery of research practice briefs, and exploring how the center can better serve veterans, those serving in the military, and their families.
Building on momentum from year one, the Iowa BEST Summit will convene educators, administrators, and school mental health champions on October 10-11, 2022. The center will also continue its work with Fairfield Community School District through a teacher wellness professional development series.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished in only one year,” says Bruhn. “This is just the beginning of our work, and we want to continue to help schools create a future where every student and educator has the mental health and well-being support they need to thrive, grow, and reach their greatest potential.”
See more from the Annual Report