$1M grant to College of Education will help support mental health of Black youth

student sitting at a table and writing

A new University of Arizona-led project will help develop educational policies that better support the mental health of Black pre-K and K-12 students, who are at increased risk for suicide, depression and other mental illness.

The Black Youth Mental Health Initiative will bring UArizona expertise to Richmond Public Schools, a district in central Virginia, thanks to a $1 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Renae D. Mayes

Renae D. Mayes

Renae D. Mayes, an associate professor of disability and psychoeducational studies in the UArizona College of Education, will lead the project in partnership with staff and administrators at Richmond Public Schools and other education policy experts.

Mayes' research focuses on the academic experiences of Black students and how those experiences are affected by other aspects of students' identities, such as gender, class or disabilities. Her research, she said, aims to emphasize Black children's strengths despite the challenges they may face in school, such as poor funding to school districts or a lack of training for faculty and staff.

"We cannot blame Black children for systemic issues," Mayes said. "Black children are trying really hard, they're building relationships, they want to engage in careers in the sciences, and they're curious."

Creating a 'springboard' for other districts

While there have been many studies focused on the mental health of minority populations, Mayes said more research is necessary to understand specific needs of Black students.

Death by suicide is highest among Black children ages 5-11, according to a report the Department of Health and Human Services delivered to Congress in 2020. The report also found that suicide is the second leading cause of death for Black children ages 10 and 14 and the third leading cause of death for Black teenagers between 15 and 19.

Black children, the report says, are also more likely to experience institutional oppression across health care, economic, criminal justice, legal, educational and environmental systems, which makes them more susceptible to poor mental health.

Mayes and her colleagues will use a series of focus groups to better understand the Richmond Public Schools culture, what policies it already has to support students' mental health, what training is available to the districts' counselors and what organizations or services are already available in Richmond that the district could also use.

The broader goal, Mayes said, is to learn what policies will serve students holistically – in ways that consider their social and personal lives in addition to their academics.

Although the project will be tailored to Richmond Public Schools and the needs of that district's students, Mayes and her colleagues hope their work can lead to resources that empower districts across the country to support the mental health of their Black students.

"We definitely would love for this to be a springboard to build capacity in other districts and communities," she said.

"The work Dr. Mayes and her colleagues are doing will undoubtedly have far-reaching and profound impact," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am proud to know that University of Arizona research and expertise can reach public schools around the nation, and I am grateful to the Department of Health and Human Services for supporting this important work."

Searching for sustainable preventive policies

Richmond Public Schools serves 22,000 students, from preschool through high school; 55% of the district's students are Black. The district was chosen for the project because of previous relationships that Mayes' colleagues had with district leaders and other community organizations in Richmond.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the district saw a rise in incidents that impact students' mental health, Mayes said, including cases of gun violence and child protective service referrals, compared to the 2020-2021 academic year.

The district's counselors and social workers also completed more suicide risk assessments in the last school year than in the year before. The assessments are typically done by school counselors or social workers upon referrals from teachers after a student says or writes things conveying suicidal thoughts, or seems withdrawn from their classes or friends.

District leaders have long wanted to develop preventive programs to address these issues, but limited resources have made that difficult, and they've instead found themselves responding to crises after the fact.

When asked about participating in the project, district leaders saw "an opportunity to get ahead of a lot of these things that happen and work with us to help get policy and prevention moving forward when they're already stretched," Mayes said.

Creating community-oriented solutions

Researchers will bring together district leaders and staff, leaders of Richmond community organizations, mental and behavioral health experts in Richmond and others to create an eight-member advisory board to help guide the project.

Researchers will not assign solutions to the district as part of the project, Mayes said, but rather work with district leaders, staff and community members to understand what policies might work best for improving students' mental health in ways that are sustainable.

Mayes hopes that by the end of the project, Richmond Public Schools will have the resources they need to "catch their breath" from responding to crises and develop policies that prevent mental health challenges for students.

"They're doing amazing work," she added. "And I know that it would be even more impactful if they're able to shift from being in crisis to engaging in prevention."

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