Falls school district receives $3.5M to boost mental health programs

Feb. 4—The Niagara Falls School District is getting a big boost from the federal government to support school and community mental health programs.

During a visit to Niagara Falls High School on Friday, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, announced an award to the district of $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education's School-Based Mental Health Services program.

Officials said the funds from the five-year grant will be used by the district to develop a recruitment and engagement plan to increase the number of school-based providers, especially providers of color. Under the grant, the district will work with Niagara University and the University at Buffalo to create 21 mental health paid internships in psychology and social work annually for graduate students.

"Mental health services in schools provide students and families access to support for a strong foundation," Higgins said. "Funding announced today will help students cope with trauma and challenges, so that they can be successful in life."

Higgins said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with recent events that have transpired in Western New York, including the deadly December blizzard and last year's racially motivated mass shooting at a Tops grocery store, made the need for expanded mental health services "abundantly clear." He said that need is particularly acute for teens and young students who are dealing with increased anxiety, depression and trauma which were greatly exacerbated by the isolation and impact of the Covid pandemic.

For example, Higgins said, between 2016 and 2020, the number of teenagers diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%.

He noted that in 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health and that the shortage of mental health care professionals has created an access barrier to services and programs for youngsters and families in need.

"All of these situations require that we do more to help our young people," Higgins said.

Under the grant program, officials said interns, alongside Niagara Falls School District staff, including non-instructional personnel such as bus drivers, will be trained to recognize the impact of trauma through ongoing professional development.

Under the program, the district will also connect with high school students at job fairs and college recruitment events.

Additionally, to engage the community, officials said the program will also include outside counseling for families, along with mentoring and tutoring opportunities for students.

Niagara Falls School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said district officials have already started the process of interviewing prospective paid interns for the program and said some of the interviews took place on Friday.

In addition, Laurrie said, district officials are going to begin the process of identifying students who may be interested in careers in counseling, psychology or other mental health-related fields so they can be put on a track to acquire degrees in those fields.

"We will start to channel and pipeline those students with this money to not only have coursework in those fields but to enter early college programs at Niagara University," Laurrie said.

The Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., and president of NU, said the grant-funded partnership with the school district will, in addition to providing critical resources to city schools, create a career pathway for high school students who are interested in pursuing work as social workers or mental health professionals.

Laurrie said he was proud of administrators and staff members who participated in the competitive grant process and who put together a successful application for the district and its students.

"It didn't come because I did anything. It came because we have a team that works," Laurrie said.

Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino, a former president and nine-year member of the city school district's board of education, said, in order to help area children grow, it is important to invest in all aspects of their lives.

"Providing them additional resources and social workers to tackle mental health issues is not just a priority, but a growing need," Restaino said. "We are excited to see the strides being taken to support our students and their families in times of need."

Grant funding for the Falls school district will come from the federal government's fiscal year 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act as part of a federal effort to address mental health needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, community violence, and adverse childhood experiences. This past year, about $143.9 million was made available to support qualifying grantees across the country through the School-Based Mental Health Services program, according to Higgins' office.