After years of preparation, a University of Oregon research initiative to provide mental health assistance to students with disabilities is off to a strong start with a federal grant.
The SIMPLE project, which stands for Schoolwide Inclusive Mental Health Promotion for Learning and Coordinated Community Engagement, was formed in response to the Model Demonstration Grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, which means the research findings should be able to help to guide other institutions.
James Sinclair, a research associate at UO’s Center for Human Development, was one of the principal investigators on Project SIMPLE. He has a lifelong passion for accessible resources and has recognized a gap in mental health services, particularly among adolescents with disabilities.
“What I realized was that there really weren’t a lot of resources available for people with disabilities – at least at the school level – to talk about mental health. People with disabilities suffer from mental health conditions at a higher rate, so they have a higher prevalence, whether it’s anxiety or depression,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair has discovered through her years of research that mental health resources for young people with disabilities are few and far between. He added that despite a recent increase in the number of school mental health services, which are “wonderful” for able students, they are often not accessible to all groups.
“There’s a gap not only for research, but also for resources that special educators could use when talking about mental health,” he said.
The idea behind the SIMPLE project is to “bridge the gap” that exists in mental health services for young people with disabilities. Sinclair, along with her two co-principal investigators Geovanna Rodriguez and Katherine Bromley, are leading the project.
Sinclair’s goal is to create a model of mental health resources available to students with disabilities that can be emulated statewide and potentially nationally.
The SIMPLE project received $1.6 million in federal funding from the Office of Special Education Programs. The funding specifically targeted mental health resources for students with disabilities. Sinclair said that seeing the request for entries, he knew this was his chance to get the project off the ground.
“They (OSEP) saw the need, and that’s what I tried to defend,” Sinclair said. “Very lucky (that) we were one of the sites that was selected for funding so that we could work with schools to develop a model and implementation strategy that works for them.”
The OSEP funding schedule and the schools all set themselves up for it, Sinclair said. The intersection between disability and mental health is a “growing field” and this project will provide an opportunity to collect much more data on a larger scale.
Collaboration with Springfield Schools
The SIMPLE project will begin field testing at Springfield High School this fall. The team worked with Springfield Public School officials over the summer to prepare for the changes ahead.
The project team conducted a needs assessment of school staff, asking questions about the current state of school mental health services, what gaps exist and what resources are still needed.
After receiving the results of the needs assessment, the team is now proposing different options that could be implemented to meet those needs.
Sinclair and her team are looking forward to launching the collaborative school project. They are looking for feedback and submissions to help guide the project to find the best ways to support students and staff. The team will primarily receive feedback from Springfield, giving advice and observing the impact from afar.
The Sinclair team will provide professional development to help train teachers and staff on how best to support students with disabilities in school. Ultimately, the aim is to streamline accessible services that staff and students can easily work with, rather than create an entirely new counseling system for the school.
Sinclair said the SPS team seems equally excited about the collaboration.
“I really want to make sure it’s clear that we’re so grateful to Springfield High School and the team they’ve put together to support this project,” Sinclair said. “They’ve already tried to put in place ways to connect students to services and their community. I think that’s really wonderful.”
After one year at Springfield High, Project SIMPLE will expand to two other SPS high schools in subsequent years. Eventually, SIMPLE will also work to reach out into the community and build strong ties with local organizations that could also provide resources to the initiative.
Lack of resources for people with disabilities
In his work on special education and disability research, Sinclair found that school resources are built with the intention of serving the greatest majority of students possible. Unfortunately, this often means that the services are aimed at helping able students, who make up the majority of the student population. He said it was not intentionally negative, but the end result often excluded people with disabilities.
“Many times not everything that was implemented was designed or designed for people with disabilities,” Sinclair said.
One of the most common types of intervention carried out in school health centers are mental health screenings intended to identify signs of mental health disorders, but contain questions that may be difficult or impossible to answer. for young people with disabilities.
“Whether it’s the language used, whether we need to design something that provides visual illustrations for students who have more severe cognitive impairment. Sometimes it’s even just the wording of an assessment or of a filter that may not be accessible.”
He added that in a classroom where social and emotional learning takes place, a teacher who talks about depression might assume that everyone in the class already knows what depression is. Instead, a program explaining what depression is would be helpful for some students with disabilities.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact, mental health services have become more valuable than ever. Sinclair said that has always been a problem, but the pandemic has made the lack of resources even more apparent.
“We’re going to have to deal with things that kind of remain from the pandemic,” Sinclair said. “There is a huge disruption in education – the typical way we educate, the typical way students engage with school. We have to learn how to reintegrate, engage our students who come to campus, come to this building to learn, but also those other aspects of life that have completely bombarded them. Not only do you have a pandemic, you have isolation, but there are also broader elements. »
To learn more about the project, visit blogs.uoregon.edu/simple.