University of Iowa center tackles mental health crisis in K-12 schools

University of Iowa educators highlight efforts to improve mental health in schools during a June 2 Iowa Board of Regents meeting.
University of Iowa educators highlight efforts to improve mental health in schools during a June 2 Iowa Board of Regents meeting. L to R: Dan Clay, dean of college of education; Allison Bruhn, executive director for the new center; Kari Vogelgesang, director of professional development; Gerta Bardhoshi, director of research and training; Alissa Doobay, director of clinical services. CREDIT IOWA BOARD OF REGENTS YOUTUBE

Experts during a June 2 Board of Regents presentation expressed concern that the K-12 mental health crisis in Iowa and across the country is getting worse, and is affecting students and teachers alike.

The Iowa Board of Regents, Iowa Department of Education, The State of Iowa and the University of Iowa’s college of education have partnered to address K-12 school mental health, an increasingly prevalent issue, for each school in Iowa by forming the Iowa Center for School Mental Health.

“Suicide rates are unfortunately getting worse,” said Gerta Bardhoshi, director of research and training for the center, during her remarks. “Attempted suicides and completed suicide rates have gone up in Iowa and this is a national trend.”

Among Iowa adolescents, suicide is the second-leading cause of death and 16% of Iowa’s youth ages 12-17 have a mental health disorder, says Executive Director Allison Bruhn. Over the last decade, there has been a 53% increase in youth contemplating suicide.

“When you’re looking at teachers leaving the workforce, that’s an indicator things are getting worse,” said Kari Vogelgesang, director of professional development for the center. “When we look at [exit] survey data and we’re asking them ‘why are you leaving?’ mental health is one of the first things they list. It’s always in the top three [reasons].”

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The Iowa Center for School Mental Health aims to provide “social, emotional, behavioral and psychological (SEBP) services to Iowa’s schools,” according to board documents. The center is meant to become the “hub for research-to-practice.”

It is thought to be the first-of-its-kind in the state, with no comparable center at other universities in Iowa, and was formally approved by the Board of Regents during July meetings. Planning for the center began before the pandemic but the effects of isolation have made the issue even more prominent.

“The mental health effects of COVID were devastating and really exacerbated the problems our schools were facing,” said Dan Clay, dean of the college of education. “So through the Iowa Department of Education, they provided a $20 million grant to us, which was a combination of federal pass-through funds and state monies. It’s been less than a year since Governor Kim Reynolds made the announcement in a press conference that the center would be created. The phone calls started coming into the center the very next day.”

Other funding will come from donors and budgetary reallocation from the college of education over the next seven years. Board documents show the university intends to establish a $50 million endowment to support “long-term operational costs of the center.”

“Struggles with mental health are part of the normal human experience,” he added. “One of our goals is to help kids and educators build the skills they need to manage that throughout their whole life.”