PSU to train new mental health service providers to work in high-need Pacific Northwest schools


Shane Ersland


Portland State University (PSU) will use nearly $6 million in federal funding to train new school-based mental health service providers to address shortages in high-need Oregon and Washington schools.


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The US Department of Education (DOE) will distribute the funds to PSU over a five-year period through the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant Program. Evan Elkin, co-principal investigator for the grant and executive director of the PSU School of Social Work’s Reclaiming Futures program, told State of Reform that the DOE’s request for proposals for the grant invited applicants to provide details about how they would get students interested in working in the field.

“What will you do to help a high school student succeed? How do you build a nourishing pipeline for school mental health staff? What inspires young people to work in schools? What special skills do they need? The other mandate was to look at the neediest districts. And at Reclaiming Futures, we are no strangers in our work for focusing on the highest-need communities for equity. We work in communities where there are economic disparities. We design public health models with emphasis on those communities.”

— Evan Elkin, executive director of the PSU School of Social Work’s Reclaiming Futures program

Reclaiming Futures is a national public health-oriented juvenile justice reform organization dedicated to improving behavioral health outcomes for youths and families.

PSU worked with partner organizations to identify the Pacific Northwest schools in highest need of behavioral health service providers.  

“We talked to a lot of districts and asked about ratios of mental health providers compared to students,” Elkin said. 

PSU will train 500 individuals to serve 75,000 students between 2024 and 2029. The university will place 73 social work interns in seven educational organizations, 75 percent of which represent marginalized communities. They are located in rural southern Oregon, Washington County, northeast Portland, Spokane, and the Chemawa Indian School. Each area faces challenges like high levels of poverty, homelessness, and wildfire vulnerability.

“In a tribal community, it is not difficult at all to see how well-staffed they are,” Elkin said. “They are historically the schools in most need of resources. That was an easy sell. We knew inner-city Portland was experiencing spikes in violence, and crying out for resources and help. So we talked to school districts there, and [asked] if they would be interested if we had interns to place in their district. And we hope to be placing interns there.”

PSU will partner with the Latino Network, La Clinica, and the Northwest Portland Area Indian Board to implement the initiative, as the students that will be served are predominantly Hispanic, and speak several different languages.

“We established a strong community partner in each category to supervise interns, provide mentoring in creating electives, and other kinds of supportive learning for students for when they get placed. The second big part is that we’re looking to recruit from those communities.”

— Elkin

Participating schools had to either have baseline screening programs for mental health in place, or establish them, Elkin said. 

“You need a solid way of deciding who needs services,” he said. “A lot of schools don’t have that. So we asked folks to put in an early identification and triage program in the schools we worked in. That was what originally attracted me to it. We already have schoolwide mental health screening programs in (many) school districts. We have a playbook for implementation to implement it efficiently. That was a strong selling point for us to get this grant. PSU was willing to create this special track.”

Students recruited for the project will receive a $10,000 stipend if they work at one of the high-need school districts included in the project. They will also get support from specialized academic advisors from partner agencies in those high-need communities, and clinical supervision and continuing education following their graduation.  

“They’ll engage in counseling with students who are determined to be in need of treatment,” Elkin said. “They’ll carry a caseload of people who have been determined to need extra support. We will also train them to take the lead in a lot of schools in the universal screening program. It’s an interactive process. 

The kids can take self-administered training on an app on their phone, and someone needs to discuss the questions they answered with them. It’s a brief intervention, sitting down with that person, and putting those [statements] into life context. It’s a highly motivational intervention, and we capture it in a training manual. So we’ll teach them how to have that conversation.”