The U.S. Department of Education has awarded nearly $10 million to the University of Missouri to establish a National Center for Rural School Mental Health. 

Researchers and staff at the new center will create an online data and training system to support the mental health needs of students in rural schools throughout Missouri, Virginia and Montana.

“Our goal is for this new national center is to provide a wealth of information to rural schools across the three states,” said Wendy Reinke, a professor in the MU College of Education and the lead investigator on the grant. “Many rural schools are very small and remote, limiting their access to professional development resources, assessments for identifying youth in need of mental health supports and coaching opportunities. This center will create a framework of support for rural educators in need of those tools.”

Over the next five years, the National Center for Rural School Mental Health will give rural educators and administrators access to scientific research that can help improve student outcomes. 

Specifically, researchers at the center have developed the “early identification system,” a comprehensive survey meant to identify student mental health concerns in their early stages. 

For the past four years, Reinke and her team have collected survey data from every K-12 student and their teachers in every school district within Boone County. 

The national center will bring this survey to rural schools and help the research team provide professional development training and coaching to educators in rural areas. 

Within five years, the research team plans to work with at least 110 rural schools in Missouri, Virginia and Montana to assess whether or not schools that implement the surveys and trainings experience improved social, behavioral and emotional outcomes from students.

“To date, few school-based programs focused on preventing behavioral and mental health problems have been developed specifically for or tested in rural settings,” said Catherine Bradshaw, a co-director of the center and a professor at the University of Virginia. 

“Through the center, we will adapt and scale-up a number of effective programs in a way that directly benefits rural schools and communities. This presents a unique opportunity and a bit of a challenge to us as researchers as we work to make these programs fit the needs of rural schools.” 

The creation of this national center also brings the university closer to establishing three to five national centers on campus, a goal of campus leadership. 

Meeting this goal will help position MU as a leader in national research and demonstrate the university’s commitment to improving the lives of Missourians and other rural students in need of support.

“As one of only two schools in our nation trusted with creating a national center supporting rural students’ mental health, this announcement underscores MU’s dedication to life-changing scholarship,” MU Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright said. 

“I’m so proud of our faculty members who made this possible and who continue to highlight that the University for Missouri is truly one of America’s leading research universities.”

Other researchers from the University of Missouri involved with this award include Keith Herman, professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; Aaron Thompson, associate professor of social work; Chris Riley-Tillman, professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; Kristin Hawley, associate professor of psychological services; Francis Huang, associate professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; Wolfgang Wiedermann, assistant professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; Wes Bonifay, assistant professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; and Shannon Holmes, senior research associate with the Missouri Prevention Center. Also involved are professors Amanda Nguyen, Katrina Debnam, Jessica Bottiani and Robert Pianta from the University of Virginia, and professor Ryan Tolleson Knee from the University of Montana.