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Last July, the Center received a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. By holding focus groups with mental health professionals, the public schools, parents, child service workers, juvenile justice personnel, and so forth, they are seeking to address the question: “What could we do in schools and communities to help support healthy social and emotional development in children?”
At the first and only sanctioned online-degree program with a focus on mental health issues in schools in the country, students can take individual courses based on their unique needs through continuing education, and even earn a degree at the Masters or Education Specialist level. Recognized as a national model, the Center’s online program focuses on evidence-based practice and on current, practical application-driven principles and tested theories; people working in the field can take coursework in areas with which they are being confronted professionally.
Weston describes several of the Center’s current projects. For instance, one of them seeks “to integrate mental health systems with education systems,” starting with the Moberly Public Schools, and eventually applying the model elsewhere. For this purpose, they have begun an organization called the Moberly Community Coalition for Children and Families to address children’s mental health. “It’s been a fantastic learning experience,” observes Weston. “They have really built awareness in the community around the need to address children’s mental health and to promote mental health. We take a preventative approach, arguing that we should be paying attention to children’s social and emotional development, that we should be promoting mental health the same way we promote physical health.”
Weston’s personal vision for the Center is to change the way that schools operate so that there is better access to children’s mental health services. “In schools we can be academically oriented, which is important,” she says, “but we know that kids don’t do well in school if they’re not emotionally healthy. So it’s very important for their academic success as well as their long-term success in life that we start focusing on mental health promotion.” Happily, Weston reports that “the whole school mental health movement is really taking off,” but she also notes that “the needs are just profound in terms of the crisis in children’s mental health.” Whereas there are programs for childhood immunization, no such comparable program exists to address mental health – although mental health problems outnumber physical health problems. The Center’s premise is that “many of those mental health problems could be prevented if we take a more proactive approach. We’re going to have to wake up and start dealing with these issues.”