COLLEGE PARK — Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Congressman Anthony G. Brown (all D-MD) announced $280,000 in grant funding to support a partnership between the University of Maryland (UMD), Bowie State University and Prince George’s County to recruit and train mental health professionals to work in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) on Oct. 16.

PGCPS is short at least 10 school psychologists across the entire county, said Mental Health Coordinator Scott Showalter. The number is even more significant as one psychologist typically covers two to three schools.

The University of Maryland has already had a long-standing relationship with PGCPS. Their students do 700 hours of internship over three semesters, often in PGCPS.

“We know that they get good experience, and they basically get to see all aspects of the job,” said Natasha A. Mitchell, associate clinical professor for the College of Education at Maryland. “So we’ve had this long-standing partnership, and then out of that, from time to time, I might do some professional development for the school counselors in Prince George’s County.”

PGCPS wrote the grant and asked UMD to be a partner to provide training for new and current counselors, Mitchell said. The grant will provide an excellent opportunity for Maryland to expand their program and train more mental health professionals, especially since mental health professionals in schools is a significant area of need.

“Basically what the grant is going to do is, with a cluster of schools, train those school counselors in those schools along with school counseling masters students,” Mitchell said.

The professional and student counselors will be trained on best practices to create a healthy and supportive school environment, identify any crises a student might experience, and how to address them appropriately and where to mitigate negative outcomes, Mitchell said.

“Well-trained mental health professionals can make an enormous difference in the well-being and life of a student. By drawing upon the talent that is being developed right here in Prince George’s County, this collaboration represents a promising path forward to ensure that students in Maryland public schools can get the support that they need,” said the congressmen and senators.

The funding was given through the U.S. Department of Education’s Mental Health Service Professionals Demonstration Program. The program provides competitive grants to test and evaluate innovative partnerships between institutions of higher education and states or high-need local education agencies.

These institutions train school counselors, social workers, psychologists or other mental health professionals who are qualified to provide school-based mental health services. The goal is to expand the pipeline of these workers into low-income public elementary schools and secondary schools and address the shortages of mental health service professionals in those schools.

This cycle of grant funding is expected to be the first of five years of financial support for PGCPS to provide a stipend for counselors and interns and implement Sources of Strength, a comprehensive wellness program that focuses on suicide prevention, in 10 high needs schools.

UMD takes in cohorts of 12-to-15 students each year for their school counseling and psychology program. The students train for one to two years to get their master’s degrees, and about 12 to 15 students graduate from the program every year. Most of them go on to work in public schools throughout Maryland.

With the partnership in Prince George’s County, PGCPS aims to recruit and train 50 graduate students from the departments of school counseling, school psychology, and social work at the University of Maryland and Bowie State University over five years. These will include 20 mental health professionals placed at the high needs schools throughout the school district.

“Our hope, by giving them the knowledge, skills, and experience with Sources of Strength, we’re able to recruit them to stay with us,” Showalter said. “And we are also, hopefully, able to show the school system and communities what mental health providers can do with the school system so maybe we can explore even more mental health providers in our school system.”

According to Mitchell, a shortage of school psychologists and mental health professionals is an issue for not only PGCPS but the entire country.

The standard across the country is supposed to be a maximum of 250 students for one psychologist. However, elementary schools in PGCPS can reach 600 students assigned to one psychologist, and in California, the numbers can reach up to 1,000 students for one psychologist.

Reasons for the shortage can be attributed to budget constraints and competing needs. However, Mitchell said, these days, more and more policymakers and legislators are starting to understand that having more school psychologists benefits students by making them ready to learn each day and helping them to be more college and career ready.

Mental health professionals in schools are even more important due to the prevalence of mental illness in the country.

According to Mitchell, one-in-five adults in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-to-34. Kids come into school with varying levels of instability from home, which can manifest in their behavior and deter their learning.

“Really, for us, it’s about mental health, but it’s also about optimal development and success achievement-wise for students because if you are experiencing some trauma and you are struggling with mental health, you are not available to learn,” Mitchell said. “In us doing this, this becomes a way for us to have students that hopefully go on to have better outcomes in some of the measures that we tend to judge students on like grades and test scores.”

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