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St. Scholastica uses $3.9M federal grant to help area schools with mental health

Graduate students in the occupational therapy program will provide support to students and faculty to assist in filling unmet needs.

A white two-story building, seen from the corner, with a sign reading the College of St. Scholastica near the top
The College of St. Scholastica’s Health Science Center.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The largest-ever grant awarded to the College of St. Scholastica is being used for a partnership between Northland schools and the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program.

The $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will be used over five years to increase mental health support for K-12 students.

The grant will fully fund a project directed by Shelly Smart and Kaisa Syvaoja, assistant professors in St. Scholastica’s Department of Occupational Therapy. Graduate students will be placed starting this fall in area schools, where they will practice as mental health providers. The program’s goal, Smart said, is to both help train their graduate students in mental health practice and to help the students in local schools.

Syvaoja said mental health is at the core of an occupational therapist's work and training, but the expertise can often be overlooked or underutilized.

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“In this partnership, it’s really showcasing what we can do as part of our profession in this school-based setting and it’s really also showing how we can be part of that team,” Syvaoja said. “Our goal is not to take away what the social workers are doing or what the counselors are doing — that’s not the intent at all because they’re doing something that’s totally different related to mental health, and we’re able to support those providers in a different way.”

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The role of the graduate students will vary based on each school’s needs. Jamie Hunter, academic fieldwork coordinator and assistant professor in St. Scholastica’s Department of Occupational Therapy, said the graduate students will work alongside the school’s counselors, social workers and teachers to help students learn mental health coping skills and early interventions to use in everyday life.

For example, the students may work on skills to help with anxiety, trouble focusing or behavioral problems that interfere with their abilities to focus, interact socially and complete their daily tasks and routines.

“We could provide some co-teaching opportunities where we’re in the classroom, we’re teaching the kiddos some of the skills and strategies that they can use, but we’re also modeling some of those strategies to the teacher so when we’re not there it gets carried over and it’s helping everyone,” Hunter said.

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Area school districts with existing partnerships with the College of St. Scholastica are on board to participate in the project: Superior School District, Duluth Edison Charter Schools, Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative, Northland Learning Center and Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative in Brainerd.

St. Scholastica program directors are still working with school leaders to identify how they can be of the most help, including which schools, grade levels and areas of greatest need they will be focused on.

To qualify for the grant, the schools participating in St. Scholastica’s project had to meet a threshold of undersupported mental health services for students. Hunter said there has been a significant increase in mental health needs among children, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education pushed out the grant funding for mental health service demonstration because of the growing need of mental health resources nationwide. Each of the grant recipients are training school-based mental health providers. St. Scholastica is the only occupational therapy program in the country to receive a grant.

The real joy to this project is that we’re coming in and really being able to provide additional supports and hopefully become part of that inner fabric.
Kaisa Syvaoja

The graduate students will likely be working with all students, and not just students with individualized learning plans or Section 504 plans. The participating schools already have existing mental health professionals and occupational therapists. However, Syvaoja said the St. Scholastica occupational therapists will be specifically focusing on mental health and not other occupational therapy practices like fine motor skills or behaviors.

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“The real joy to this project is that we’re coming in and really being able to provide additional supports and hopefully become part of that inner fabric,” Syvaoja said. “None of these are situations where you have to go in and start from the very beginning or they’ve never heard about mental health before. These are all really great schools and districts and they’ve got a lot to showcase and to build off of.”

The five-year plan for the project will place five students each during the fall semester of 2023 and spring semester of 2024. The following fall, the number of students will increase to 10 student placements each semester. The placement at the schools will count as field work required for graduation and licensing.

Beginning in the third year of the program, a fellowship of five licensed mental health providers will be placed in schools for the full academic year. The fellows will be licensed occupational therapists who are interested in building more mental health practice with mentorship from St. Scholastica faculty.

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“Historically, occupational therapy’s role in mental health promotion/intervention has been overlooked,” Smart and Syvaoja wrote in the project brief for the grant funding. “In school settings, OTs are uniquely positioned to focus on the developmental growth of youth to achieve independent functioning in the self-management of mental well-being and roles such as students, players and friends.”

Smart said they hope this program will attract occupational therapists and students from across the nation, especially those interested in working in rural communities. Ideally, the program will continue to grow after the five-year plan is complete and more people will be trained to fill mental health gaps.

“We’re focusing on sustaining the positions, so there will be talks over those five years with administration in the schools to find out how that might be funded and if this is something that can sustain,” Smart said. “Hopefully by having these students participate in the prevention and early intervention will change the system and do more prevention when it comes to mental health in kids.”

Smart also hopes the additional resources the graduate students and fellows bring to schools will help improve the mental health of providers at the schools they are placed in by giving them extra support.

“I think the unique thing about how this grant is structured and what it’s intended to do, because the intent is to address the mental health needs of kiddos in schools, but it’s really intended to increase the number of providers that are able to do that in the future,” Syvaoja said. “While we’ve set up a structure of training and providing advanced support for our students and the fellowship, it’s also opening the door for some of those future collaborations with practitioners that are already in those schools.”

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Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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