Collaboration enhances services for CNY children and families

Like communities across the United States, Central New York faces an acute shortage of mental health professionals, particularly those who work with children and families.

The stigma of mental health issues, combined with long waits to see psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and social workers, often means that families don’t seek help until they face a significant crisis.

That’s why the School of Social Work at Falk College, the School of Education’s Department of Counseling and Human Services, the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Upstate University’s Psychiatry Faculty Practice have joined forces to create a collaborative training program to serve high-need and high-demand populations in urban and rural areas in the Central New York region.

The project is funded by a grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HRSA’s mission is improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated or medically vulnerable. The grant will provide more than $408,000 in the first year and an anticipated $1.24 million over four years to fund the effort.

Carrie J. Smith, professor and interim chair of the School of Social Work, says the collaborative participation of social work, counseling and human services, psychology and Upstate Medical University’s department of psychiatry is a distinctive model for increasing the capacity and availability of mental health services in Central New York, including a partnership with the Onondaga Nation.

Through scholarships for trainees, enhanced field placement opportunities, a focus on improving services for people in high-need and high-demand areas, interprofessional collaboration and scholarly research, the project seeks to improve the availability and quality of mental health services for children, adolescents and families.

“This project is working at several different levels,” Smith says. “At the system level, we’re trying to break down silos between professionals in different mental health disciplines. We hope to build collaboration between the agencies serving local children and families and our own training programs at Syracuse and Upstate.

“At the workforce development level, we know that often trainees stay in the local area. Whether they are licensed counselors, psychologists, social workers or psychiatrists, if they stay in Central New York, they’ll have a built-in network of colleagues and an understanding of how to work together,” Smith adds. “And, of course, we want to improve the availability and quality of mental health care for children and families in our region.”

The project will also focus on early identification of behavioral health services in the context of primary care. The project leaders stress that mental health, like physical health, is improved by proactive screening and preventative care. Early intervention seeks to identify ways to support children and families before concerns become a crisis.

Derek X. Seward, associate professor and chair of counseling and human services in the School of Education, is excited about the opportunities for students.

“I think it will be a wonderful opportunity for our clinical mental health counseling students whose training is very focused,” Seward says. “This project will provide more richness and training around working in interdisciplinary teams, which they normally don’t get until they begin their field experiences. Most licensed counselors practice in interdisciplinary settings so this early exposure to other mental health professionals will serve our students well.”

Melissa Luke, Dean’s Professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services, stresses the benefit for professionals working at the training sites where students complete their field experiences.

“We are planning to provide ongoing training to site supervisors and other licensed practitioners who may be interested in expanding their skills in areas such as interprofessional collaboration, helping patients and families find accessible services and specific topics like trauma-informed care and cultural understanding,” Luke says. The project team believes that this kind of capacity-building can help facilitate greater access to support services, counseling and mental health care in all kinds of settings.

Nayla Khoury, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Upstate Medical University, believes that interprofessional training benefits all mental health professionals.

“We have a dire shortage of child and adolescent providers here in Central New York. The pandemic has increased need for mental health services, and we will be seeing its effects well into the future,” Khoury says. “Interprofessional education for medical students and psychiatry residents reflects how community-based care really works and prepares them to more effectively support children and families in a way that is cognizant of cultural and socioeconomic differences.”

As part of the project, Khoury will be collaborating with the Onondaga Nation to enhance behavioral health services.

Tracy Walker, director of field relations in the School of Social Work, will be working to find interprofessional field placements for all students involved in the project, regardless of academic discipline. She is excited about the potential opportunities.

“I am always trying to find the win-win between what a field experience site needs and what students are interested in,” Walker says. “This project opens up opportunities for students to gain broader experience in the field that they will take into their practice after graduation. It also offers new ways for Syracuse University and Upstate to partner with supervisors and practitioners at our field sites.”

A Syracuse University News story by Ellen de Graffenreid originally published on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.