Project AWARE: Bringing Mental Health Literacy to Pre-K-12 Schools

By Dana Asby, New England MHTTC Education Coordinator


Compassionate leadership in education comes from many levels: the teacher who pauses the day’s lesson to check in on a student who has fallen asleep, the principal who connects an unhoused family to needed resources, the superintendent who ensures there is funding set aside for school mental health providers, the state education administrator who finds opportunities to bring more mental health programming into their districts. With the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) initiative, we see an example of compassionate leadership coming from one of our federal agencies. SAMHSA has set aside funding to help schools and districts coordinate at the state level to provide mental health literacy training to staff and students. This helps fill gaps in mental health care left by the overwhelming need for services—especially since COVID-19 exponentially increased mental health crises—partnered with the lack of qualified staff to address these pressing needs. SAMHSA heard schools’ pleas to bring more expertise around youth mental health to the hands of educators and delivered a project that does just that!

Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education

As its name reiterates, Project AWARE’s purpose is to increase the school community’s understanding and use of practices that promote well-being and resilience in youth. Most of these five-year grants are awarded at the state level, where state education agencies (often called the Department of Education) are asked to partner with their state’s mental health agency to seek staff training and deliver student programming around mental health literacy. For other Project AWARE grants, local education agencies (usually a school district) receive these funds directly to work on building or strengthening their comprehensive school mental health systems.


Project AWARE has three overarching goals (Department of Health and Human Services, 2020):

  1. Increase awareness of mental health issues among school-aged youth

  2. Provide training for school personnel and other adults who interact with school-aged youth to detect and respond to mental health issues

  3. Connect school-aged youth, who may have behavioral health issues (including serious emotional disturbance [SED] or serious mental illness [SMI]), and their families to needed services


In addition to these goals, grantees at the local education agency level must increase access to culturally and developmentally responsive services, implement early screening practices, hire qualified mental health professionals, and make a sustainable school mental health care plan once the grant funding ends.


Strengthening School Mental Health in New England Through Collaboration

During the 2021-2022 school year, Project AWARE grantees have begun working with the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC) network to enhance their efforts to increase mental health literacy in our education system. This collaboration is an example of compassionate leadership using intentionality to bring previously siloed programs together to strengthen each other. The MHTTC Network in partnership with the National Center for School Mental Health recently introduced a free, online mental health literacy training program, Classroom WISE, which is an excellent example of the training and technical assistance opportunities MHTTC offers that can help meet the needs of Project AWARE grantees. When our government invests in services and brings together leaders and experts working toward the same goals, we can collaborate to make a true impact.


In New England, we at the MHTTC are excited to begin working with Project AWARE grantees in four states: Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. We started our collaboration with state leaders in late September and will be meeting with them to identify their needs and connect them to resources and trainings that can bolster their efforts. We have also invited them to join peer learning opportunities through our ongoing Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative and HEART Collective efforts to increase compassionate school mental health practices in New England schools.


Increasing mental health literacy and committing to practices that build resilience in students is an excellent first step towards reducing and addressing the childhood trauma that we know affects many young people in the Pre-K-12 education system. When government leaders collaborate with expert researchers and educators and mental health providers, effective programming like Project AWARE and effective training centers like the MHTTC network emerge to meet the mental health needs of American youth.


References

Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). FY2020 Project AWARE (advancing wellness and resiliency in education) state education agency grants.