HARRINGTON — Washington County school district SAD 37 is launching a new project to support student mental health thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The award will help the district contract with a teletherapy company that specializes in providing direct service to students. In addition, the district will develop a “grow your own” pathway in partnership with the University of Maine at Machias and Husson University to encourage Down East Maine residents to become qualified to provide school-based mental health services.

The project is in response to an urgent need for more school-based providers in the district, which has struggled to attract qualified candidates for open positions.

“We recently advertised a position for a school counselor on the Northern New England education job board and the Serving Schools website, both of which are typical methods of recruitment for schools in this region. No qualified candidates responded to the advertisements,” says Dr. Maria Frankland, project lead and guidance director for the district.

The “grow your own” aspect of the project is designed to overcome these challenges by recruiting people who already live in the region to educational programs that lead to state credentials as school-based mental health providers. The district will provide tuition assistance to students in the bachelor’s in psychology and community studies program at UMaine Machias or the master’s in clinical mental health counseling or school counseling graduate programs at Husson, as long as the students commit to employment in SAD 37 schools once they obtain their state certification. 

“We know cost is a barrier to postsecondary education for many residents of Downeast Maine,” says Frankland, also a lecturer in educational leadership at the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development. “Research has shown that programs like this help districts attract and retain workers, lead to higher job satisfaction for school employees, and most importantly benefit students with stable and reliable access to mental health supports.”

Participating students will also be expected to complete their required fieldwork and internships at SAD 37 schools, with the district providing mileage reimbursements to defray travel costs.

UMaine Machias currently offers a five-course, 15-credit, tuition-free Exploring Psychology Certificate that is available to high school juniors and seniors at Narraguagus. The certificate provides introductory-level knowledge of the field of psychology, and the credits count toward the psychology and community studies degree at UMaine Machias. 

Although they would have to wait until they officially enroll in the college-level programs at Machias or Husson to participate in the “grow your own” opportunity, Frankland says the certificate would be a good way for high school students to get a sense of whether a career in school-based mental health counseling is right for them.

The award to SAD 37 is $2.7 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Education’s School-Based Mental Health Services Grant Program, which was included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations bill approved by Congress.