The Rutgers Center for Comprehensive School Mental Health (Rutgers-CCSMH) partnered with the New Jersey Department of Education to establish mental health systems in schools through the Enhancing School Mental Health Services Project, according to a press release.
Ann Murphy, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions at Rutgers, said the project aims to help 50 selected schools develop and implement a comprehensive mental health framework through intensive training and technical support.
"This project was funded by the New Jersey Department of Education in January 2023 as part of an ongoing commitment to prioritizing the overall well-being of students through the advancement of mental health supports in schools," she said.
The project's comprehensive approach includes the startup of the Technical Assistance and Leadership Academy for the selected New Jersey schools and statewide training for all schools and districts, Murphy said.
She also said each school's training consists of a list of topics chosen from a research-based framework for comprehensive school mental health systems and includes tailored consultation services for each school's needs.
Kristy Ritvalsky, the project manager for the Rutgers-CCSMH, said each school will be assigned a Rutgers consultant from the center to assess the initial stages and development.
"We want to make sure that folks understand what we mean when we're talking about fidelity of implementation," Ritvalsky said. "We can't make that assumption that everybody's already received (help) or everybody's already at that point."
Throughout the project, Ritvalsky said pre- and post-knowledge assessments will be given to determine how well the training has increased staff knowledge.
To ensure the program works across the whole system, Ritvalsky said the program will use a "shape assessment tool" that helps school teams evaluate their mental health system and find areas to improve.
The program had nearly 90 school applications, Ritvalsky said, which reflects the tremendous commitment from New Jersey educators who want to support the student's academics and mental health.
New Jersey schools were chosen through a competitive application process led by the Department of Education. The selection process focused on critical factors, including the schools' readiness, the administration's commitment to the long-term project and the schools' pre-existing infrastructure of mental health services, Ritvalsky said.
Although the project is still in its early phases, Murphy said they are open to making changes to the program to ensure that its efforts are in line with the requirements of the New Jersey schools.
A persistent issue in the program's initial stages and also nationwide is staffing shortages across schools and community mental health systems, she said.
Despite these challenges, the project aims to enhance staff capacity through skill development, although this may strain schools with a lack of resources, Murphy said.
Ritvalsky said if the opportunity arises, expanding the program throughout all of New Jersey would be an amazing possibility.
"We have this amazing opportunity to create a collaborative learning environment for schools across the state that will allow them to collectively problem solve and share their successes," she said.
Ritvalsky said that the team's dedication and diversity contributed to greater collaboration and placed them in a good position to offer the knowledge and assistance that the schools seek.
"We are excited and looking forward to collaborating with the schools," Ritvalsky said. "Hopefully, creating this systemic change as it relates to comprehensive school mental health and creating some exemplary schools across the state can hopefully serve as a model for other schools that are looking to do this work."