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Zerden and UNC partners awarded $1.92 million grant to prepare MSW students and counselors to address behavioral healthcare needs of youth

UNC School of Social Work associate professor Lisa de Saxe Zerden, in partnership with colleagues at UNC School of Education, and Department of Allied Health Sciences in UNC School of Medicine, have been awarded a $1.92 million federal grant to expand support and resources to address the behavioral healthcare needs of youth and their families.

Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D.
Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D.

The four-year grant, awarded from the U.S. Health Services and Resources Administration, will fund the new project, UNC-PrimeCare4Youth – an initiative that will train 116 master’s-level behavioral health students from Carolina’s social work, school counseling, and professional counseling programs to work in integrated health care settings such as hospitals, community health centers, public health departments and judicial systems. Students will be required to have field placements in these settings and will receive $10,000 stipends for this work.

The project builds off of Zerden’s work and leadership with UNC-PrimeCare, a School program originally funded in 2014 to expand the behavioral health workforce by training final year MSW students and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners to work in integrated settings. To date, nearly 245 total students have graduated from the UNC-PrimeCare program over the last seven years. This additional funding allows this project to continue.

The UNC-PrimeCare4Youth consists of a campus interprofessional team and includes Zerden, UNC-Prime Care principal investigator; Meryl Kanfer, PrimeCare program coordinator; Sara Meghan Walter, clinical associate professor and program coordinator for the School Counseling Program with the School of Education, and Judy Schmidt, assistant professor with the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling with Allied Health.

UNC’s federal grant was one of 92 grants awarded across the country this year.

“Given our previous success with PrimeCare in traditionally health and substance use focused agencies, we are delighted to expand this work and integrated services into new organizations, such as those that support families, child welfare, schools, and so many others,” said Zerden. “Addressing our state’s behavioral health care needs requires interventions that span professional boundaries. We are particularly excited about working with our new interprofessional partners.”

The UNC-PrimeCare4Youth program will teach trainees the skills necessary to identify those at risk of developing mental health conditions and substance use problems. The goal is to provide prevention, support and intervention resources to help mitigate the long-term impacts of these issues as they emerge in youth and young adults.

Given current estimates suggesting that less than 45% of adults and less than 20% of youth currently receive the behavioral health services they need, such critical care is vital to preventing a lifetime of devasting consequences, Zerden said. For youth, in particular, untreated behavioral health conditions can affect academic and personal development, making them more at risk for dropping out of school, suicide and substance use, she said.

“Youth unable to seek appropriate treatment in convenient, culturally responsive ways will likely experience worse outcomes,” Zerden said.

Meryl Kanfer, LCSW
Meryl Kanfer, LCSW

Additionally, unmet behavioral health needs impact society at large by increasing public expenditures for housing, disability, income support, the justice system, and other social welfare services, Zerden added. However, when youth and adults can access behavioral health services in integrated settings, including through their primary physician’s office or a medical health clinic, they are more likely to receive holistic health treatment, all of which can positively affect their long-term behavioral health, Zerden said.

For North Carolina, where there is a shortage of mental health professionals, youth in need of these services are among the least likely to receive adequate treatment.

“Simply put, the state has a clear and urgent need to strengthen its integrated, trauma-informed behavioral health services,” Zerden said.

The UNC-PrimeCare4Youth program’s collaborative approach to mental and physical health also offers another strategic opportunity to improve racial and health equity, added Kanfer who will work closely with the first cohort of trainees when they begin their studies this fall.

“It’s exciting to be able to train and prepare a new group of students with the skills needed to work as part of a team providing comprehensive behavioral health care to children and adolescents in high need areas,” Kanfer said.

In addition to taking specialized coursework and targeted workshops, students will participate in
self-directed learning focused on trauma-informed care, cultural and linguistic competency, suicide prevention, digital behavioral health, and community engagement. Trainees will also produce an end-of-the-year capstone project and present their work at a symposium during the spring semester.

Research related to educational and practice outcomes will also be conducted.