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School receives $2.2 million in federal funding to prepare students for integrated healthcare

The UNC School of Social Work has been awarded $2.2 million in federal grants to train MSW students to work in primary care settings as behavioral and mental healthcare specialists and to prepare UNC dual-degree graduates for leadership roles in public health social work.

The larger of the two grants, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, was awarded as part of an initiative to increase the number of mental health and public health workers, especially those serving adolescents and young adults.

Nationally, because of the shortage of behavioral health services for youth, young people are among the least likely to receive treatment. This shortage is especially acute in North Carolina, where children, who are 12 and older, have among the nation’s highest rates of illicit drug use and dependence.

UNC researchers aim to address this need with the federal funding. About $1.4 million will be used to create UNC-PrimeCare, a program that will rigorously prepare MSW students to work with medical professionals in the assessment and treatment of children and young adults who have, or are at risk for, mental health or substance use disorders.

“The mind-body connection in healthcare has been discussed for years, and this money will assist us in preparing and training our students as they enter the health care practice arena,” said School of Social Work Dean Jack M. Richman.

Most of the money will support student stipends–about $10,000 per student–and to hire a recruiter who can help the School quickly enlist primary care clinics and other health-focused agencies willing to serve as field placements for social work interns. The grant will also pay for developing courses, continuing education workshops and seminars.

Second-year concentration students are eligible for the program, which will launch in October, said Lisa Zerden, a clinical assistant professor and UNC-PrimeCare program director. About 10 students are expected to enroll in the pilot project, with another 21 enrolling over the summer. All total, the program aims to train 93 MSW students over the three-year grant period, increasing the School’s number of behavioral health graduates by threefold.

“This really is a win-win for everyone,” said Zerden who is collaborating on the project with Anne Jones, co-investigator and clinical professor. “Students will get the specialist training they need, more opportunities to work in integrated healthcare settings and generous compensation for their work in the field. On the other end, healthcare providers will get well-trained state-of-the-art social workers who can assist practices in treating patients more holistically. And with the seminars and workshops, they will have more opportunities to stay up-to-date on the latest in integrated healthcare.”

Changes under the Affordable Care Act have contributed to the incorporation of more behavioral health professionals, especially social workers, into integrated health care settings. Generally, doctors and nurses are seeing more patients with substance abuse and mental health disorders and as a result, need more support and resources to screen and treat these individuals’ needs, Zerden said. Trained social workers are a “natural fit” for these roles and for helping patients manage their overall care, including assisting with referrals and navigating the complex healthcare system, she said.

Perhaps most significant, these same social workers can help to screen and treat youth and young adults between 16 and 25—the critical age range for catching behavioral and mental healthcare problems before they worsen, Zerden said.

“If we can intervene and provide holistic care that meets the needs of adolescents early on, this can hopefully lead to healthier coping mechanisms and healthier outcomes into adulthood,” she said.

UNC leaders are equally excited about the funding boost for the dual master’s degree program in social work and public health. The program was awarded a three-year $866,342 “Leadership in Public Health Social Work Education” grant from the Bureau of Health Workforce. A significant portion of the funding will support students, especially in the summer during their second year field placements, explained Professor Kathleen Rounds, co-director of the MSW/MPH program. Each student will receive a $10,000 stipend for living expenses and tuition, as well as about $3,000 for graduate student health insurance.

“It’s more funding than we’ve had in the past for students, and it’s critically important because the summer field placement is full-time, and students pay summer school tuition, and they have no way to support themselves during that time,” she said. “This funding makes a huge difference for them.”

The grant will also support a nine-month interdisciplinary leadership training program. This program, which has been offered since 2001, is co-sponsored by the social work and public health dual degree program, Maternal and Child Health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Leadership in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. The training experience is offered to students, parents of children with special health care needs, professionals from the North Carolina Title V program, and self-advocates.

Finally, Rounds said she’s excited about the opportunity to partner with University of Maryland School of Social Work and University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, both of which were also awarded similar leadership program grants. The academic partners will each use a portion of their funding to develop an education summit that will explore best practices in curriculum for dual degree public health social work students.

Long-term, both federal grants will enable the School of Social Work to pursue other possibilities for collaborating with campus partners and community agencies and for integrating behavioral health, public health and primary care, Richman added.

“These two grants were developed by our faculty in full interest of and in collaboration with the Health Affairs Schools at UNC and with many of our community agency partners,” he said. “I am confident that these programs and the money that will support them will really step up our work and impact in the health and behavioral health systems and provide significant financial support for many MSW students working in these areas. I am further confident that these grants will afford the School the opportunity to become a leader in these emerging and critical areas of practice.”