In recent years, New York City has seen a significant increase of children diagnosed with anxiety or depression— from 8.9% in 2016 to 10.9% in 2020, according to a report by the Annie Casey Foundation. Across the state, an estimated 264,000 children between 9 and 17 years old are severely impacted by an emotional disturbance, according to a report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Despite these needs, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health estimated that approximately 2.3 million New Yorkers (30%) live in areas with a shortage of mental health care.
Thanks to a grant of nearly $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education received this month, Eric C. Chen, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology and director of the Clinical Mental Health Services Program at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education, is working with his team to fill in some of those gaps. The grant will be used to implement a five-year training project, “Educate School-Based Mental Health Professionals For Justice: A Developmental-Contextual Approach,” in partnership with two groups of local schools—18 KIPP charter schools and 69 schools in NYC’s District 9. These schools combined serve more than 35,000 students, the majority of whom qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The new program will train Fordham graduate students, particularly those studying to become school counselors or school psychologists, to work in school settings as mental health providers.
Responding to the Need
Chen said he saw the need for more mental health services from his own firsthand experience in running the Clinical Mental Health Service (CCMH) Program. The clinical program provides telehealth services for free to predominantly Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and immigrant children and youth in the Bronx, thanks to $860,000 in support since 2020 from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. It also offers virtual workshops for parents and teachers to learn about specific mental health issues impacting children and students.
“Many school counselors and social workers refer their students to us because they simply are overwhelmed by their students’ rising mental health concerns—some schools don’t even have a school counselor—so I recognize the urgent need for mental health professionals in the school system,” he said. “This new grant provides an excellent training opportunity for our students to get ready to support those students in need in New York City.”
According to an audit completed by the New York State Comptroller in the 2020-2021 school year, more than 400 NYC public schools didn’t have a single social worker on staff. The audit also found that even in schools that had social workers and counselors, the majority had caseloads that exceeded state recommendations.
The new project will train 100 students over five years from the Graduate School of Education, particularly those studying to become school counselors or school psychologists, to be mental health providers using evidenced-based and culturally responsive principles. Those students will then intern in the schools, providing additional mental health services to students.
Training in culturally responsive practices is important because that can help break down barriers for families who need mental health services, Chen said. For example, if students are undocumented, their parents might resist signing them up for services for fear of deportation. But if counselors are not trained properly in cultural competencies, they might think the parents aren’t concerned about the child’s mental health, Chen said.
The goals of the new project include providing mental health services to about 10,000 high-need students in these schools annually, creating a training pipeline that helps GSE students grow personally and advance their careers, and having 80 graduate students—80% of the students participating in the project—employed as school-based mental health professionals in high-need schools within two years of earning their degree and certification.
In light of the high living cost in New York City, the funding will also be used to provide the student-interns with some financial support for their own education and needs, Chen said.
Building on Current Mental Health Work and Bronx Partnerships
Chen said that this project will also enhance the work of some other mental health provider-related initiatives at Fordham, including the Clinical Mental Health Services Program (CCMH), which he runs.
“I appreciate the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation’s recognition of the need that exists in our marginalized communities, and how we need to support our students through the CCMH program,” he said.
Chen noted that he decided to apply for the federal grant in part because he wanted to “maximize and expand the impact of Mother Cabrini’s generous funding and support for us.”
He said that the students involved in the new federally-funded project will partner with those in the CCMH program through expanded training opportunities and other initiatives. This will have a multiplier effect, he said, in terms of the numbers of students in need that can be helped.
Chen is currently in the middle of recruiting the first cohort of 25 graduate students who will receive training this semester before beginning their internships with the schools this fall. He credits President Tania Tetlow for helping inspire him to complete the grant proposal, which included getting signed memos of understanding from the school partners in less than a month’s time.
“I remember watching several public speeches that she gave where she reaffirmed Fordham’s fierce commitment to be a good neighbor in the Bronx and in New York City,” he said. “So I thought that’s important—for me to utilize this grant to support our neighbors in need, particularly in the Bronx.”