Expanding Mental Health Across Long Island

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Dr. Kathleen M. Feeley and Helene Fallon spearhead $4.05 million project to train mental health professionals to work in underserved communities

The United States is mired in a mental health crisis, exacerbated by insufficient and inequitable access to services and a lingering stigma to seeking help. It is a complex problem requiring multi-faceted solutions.

Long Island University, in collaboration with three high-need school districts in the region, secured a $4.05 million U.S. Department of Education grant to fund the Long Island Mental Health Professional Expansion Project, an ambitious initiative to recruit diverse candidates from the three school district communities and educate them as social workers, school counselors or mental health counselors to train and ultimately work in those specific Long Island communities.

The project is spearheaded by Kathleen M. Feeley, Ph.D., Long Island University Professor of Education and Director of LIU’s Center for Community Inclusion (CCI), which provides members of the LIU community, educators, families, early interventionists, medical professionals, employers and the community at large with resources to support individuals with disabilities, enabling them to become active community members and realize their full potential. Helene Fallon, an LIU alumnus, former social worker and currently CCI’s Associate Director, was instrumental in developing the application for The Mental Health Professional Expansion Project, which is administered through the CCI.

Mental Health Professional Expansion Program

Launched April 1, 2023, the five-year Mental Health Professional Expansion Project will recruit, educate and train 16 total individuals to work in the Brentwood, Freeport and Uniondale school district communities. Qualified applicants hailing from those communities will be selected to enter Long Island University’s Mental Health Counseling Master of Science, School Counseling Master of Science or Master of Social Work programs. The 16 students will receive scholarships that leave them responsible for only $500 out of pocket per semester; the students will study for four or five semesters, depending on the master’s program. The degree candidates must agree to conduct and complete all required fieldwork and internships and agree to work for two years after graduation within the participating high-needs school district communities.

The first cohort of seven students entered the master’s programs at Long Island University in fall 2023. These students will begin their fieldwork in the participating school districts in fall 2024. An evidence-based retention plan is in place to ensure the 16 total students successfully complete the program as designed.

The Mental Health Professional Expansion Project’s focus includes several aims, Dr. Feeley said.

“We will prepare diverse individuals to enter the mental health field and to work in high-needs Long Island communities,” she said. “We will also work with specific schools within the three high-needs school districts to shift practices to a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) for delivery of mental health services. This is an evidence-based, three-tiered system. The first tier refers to services that will benefit the entire school population. The second tier includes additional services and programs for specific groups at higher risk for mental health challenges, such as LGBTQ students or newcomers to the country. The third tier addresses the needs of students requiring highly intensive mental health services. We are helping the specific schools with each district to either establish leadership teams or train existing leadership teams to ensure sustainability of the MTSS framework after the five-year grant period ends.”

Dominque Ramos, Ed.D. serves as the Project Coordinator. Also, LIU professors from the Counseling Department (Dogukan Ulupinar, Ph.D.) and the Social Work Department (Lois Stein, D.S.W.) will support the leadership teams in getting input from school personnel, parents, community members and other stakeholders and rolling out the multi-tiered interventions. Much of the behind-the-scenes work is conducted by CCI’s Administrator/Evaluator team of Heather Jones and Joshua Geier. The scholarship recipients also have a dedicated Promise Coach, Natalie Gutierrez, who serves as mentor and a resource to them.

Each leadership team was asked to first assess the current programs in place. “Based on the results of these assessments, we are starting to roll out appropriate professional development,” Dr. Feeley said. “For instance, the Freeport School District has a wellness center in the schools in which we are working, so there is no need to provide professional development on setting up a wellness center.”

As part of the Mental Health Professional Expansion Project, LIU will also conduct a thorough evaluation of the relevance, usefulness and quality of its curricula for training social workers, mental health counselors and school counselors and make necessary adjustments to the course curriculum within these LIU master’s degree programs.

Disparate Access to Mental Health Services

A complex array of social, economic and environmental factors contributes to the shortage of school-based mental health professionals, specifically those from diverse backgrounds, and particularly in high-needs school districts in the region. The immense weight of stressors that disproportionality affect low-income residents, combined with a lack of established infrastructure for fixing the inequities, leads to the need for a comprehensive partnership to tackle the issue.

Bordering New York City, Long Island is largely perceived as an affluent region, yet large financial gaps exist between different communities. For example, the median individual income in Brentwood was only $31,623 in 2021, compared to $75,486 in neighboring Dix Hills, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There is also a long history of deep-seeded racial disparities in the region. In 1947, Long Island became home to America’s first so-called suburb, Levittown, whose developer used contractual clauses to prevent people of color from moving into the community. For decades, discriminatory real estate practices contributed to today’s patchwork of segregated communities, each lacking racial and economic diversity and each with its own school district. As the majority of school funding comes from tax dollars, school districts serving communities with higher real estate values have been able to generate greater funding, while districts serving poorer communities have been at a distinct disadvantage.

Underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by substance use issues, gang activity, homelessness and related difficulties. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing disparities by leaving many students from high-needs schools with interrupted education due to a lack of resources to access instruction (including access to devices, internet and an environment conducive to online learning).

Socioeconomic conditions greatly impact mental health, and mental health disorders have been shown to have a negative impact on social and academic functioning, with related decreased opportunities for education, employment and social mobility.

As Dr. Feeley and her team noted in the grant application, half of mental illnesses emerge during or before adolescence, with the majority of mental health issues occurring before age 25, placing a disproportionate burden on young people. However, less than half of young people with mental illness receive adequate treatment, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). Left unaddressed, students with mental health challenges will experience multiple disparities throughout their lives.

Employing the MTSS approach, which is an equity-based and needs-driven mental health support service delivery framework, the project expects to reduce disparities in mental health challenges and increase access to mental health treatment across the Brentwood, Uniondale and Freeport school districts. LIU’s CCI will continue to work with school leaders to enhance implementation and progress over the course of the five-year project, to empower school personnel with knowledge of the “next steps” when they identify a student in need and the ability to coordinate appropriate support within the school, within the district and/or with outside organizations to improve student outcomes.