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MSW student Sara Shilling named Schweitzer Fellow

Sara Shilling, a Master of Social Work student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Alexis Musick, a Doctor of Medicine student at Duke University, have been selected as 2020 Albert Schweitzer Fellows for North Carolina. Together, they will develop an innovative project that will help parents learn how to use positive parenting skills and how to identify and respond to signs of mental health concerns in children.

“To our knowledge, we are the first medical student and social work student pair and, also, the first pair from two different universities” to become Schweitzer Fellows, Shilling said.

The Schweitzer Fellowship is a one-year mentored fellowship program focusing on health-related community service and leadership development. Fellows are challenged to address social and environmental determinants of health, build capacity for improving the health and well-being of individuals and communities, contribute to social change and practice culturally sensitive and compassionate care, while developing leadership skills in real-life situations.

The program requires each fellow (or team of fellows) to design and carry out a health-related direct service project of 200 hours or more; prepare reports, an electronic poster and an opinion article about the project; attend educational retreats; and complete other requirements.

Shilling and Musick will design “Adolescent Mental Health Initiative: A Program to Engage Caregivers in Supporting Youth Mental Health” and provide this program to 40 parents whose adolescent children are receiving treatment at UNC Children’s Primary Care Clinic.

They will adapt a program used by parents with young children so that it can serve the different needs of parents with adolescent children (ages 11–15).

The program will feature a series of six weekly classes, each about 90 minutes in length. Groups of 10 parents (four groups in all) will complete the program, which will be free and voluntary.

The classes will focus on the elements of positive parenting — both acknowledging good behaviors and providing appropriate discipline for misbehaviors — and on specific communication skills to help parents communicate with their children about thoughts and emotions.

The parents will also learn to identify signs of mental illness and to address risk factors or barriers to accessing care for their children, Shilling said.

“For example, a parent may think that an adolescent who sleeps all the time may be lazy, but the child may actually be depressed,” she explained.

“It’s very important for parents to talk to their children,” she added. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents, and North Carolina has very large numbers of children in that age group with mental health problems.”

In a 2015 review of behavioral health, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 96,000 adolescents in North Carolina (12.3% of the state’s young teens) had experienced a major depressive episode during the year. This is slightly higher than the national average (11.9%). The report also noted that a majority of those children (59.5%) did not receive any treatment for their mental health.

Shilling said that parents who participated in this Schweitzer program would learn about the warning signs of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. They will also learn how to talk with their children about these concerns and how to find free and low-cost resources for support and treatment.

Paul Lanier, Ph.D., an associate professor at UNC School of Social Work, noted that Shilling and her teammate Musick are engaging in important work: “Most evidence-based parenting programs focus on younger children — there is a great need for program adaptations for families with adolescent children.

“It is rare for a social work student to receive [the Schweitzer Fellowship],” he added.

Lanier will serve as Shilling’s academic mentor for the project. Gary Maslow, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, will serve as academic mentor for Musick. Samantha Schilling, M.D., an assistant professor at UNC School of Medicine and a pediatrician with UNC Children’s Primary Care Clinic, will serve as site mentor for the project.

Shilling and Musick will begin their project later this year. For more information on the Schweitzer Fellowships in North Carolina, please visit