Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado visited with Colorado State University School of Social Work and Poudre School District (PSD) representatives to discuss a $9.7 million grant that will fund internship placements and post-graduate fellowships for CSU Master of Social Work (MSW) students. The grant is designed to address the increasing need for mental health professionals in PSD while easing the financial burden of graduate school and providing career pathways for MSW students.
Bennet, PSD administrators and Amy Martonis, MSW program director, listened to high school students who shared their experiences with mental health challenges and their experiences in PSD. Together, they lauded the funding and partnership to prepare future professionals to support youth in schools.
Mental health a priority
Bennet, a former school superintendent, shared how the increasing need for mental health services has changed since he was a superintendent 14 years ago.
“Before COVID happened, people would ask me what was different about schools then versus when I was a superintendent. I had an answer for them, which was ‘mental health, mental health, mental health.’ And then with COVID, there has been an epidemic [of mental health concerns] across the whole country, and certainly in Colorado,” he told the group.
“Kids are dealing with different things now than when I was superintendent. Growing up in a country where guns are the leading cause of death for kids has concerned kids a lot more than it has concerned adults,” Bennet said. “I believe, from raising three daughters at the beginning of social media, that that has had a huge impact as well. And then add COVID.”
Bennet joined PSD and Amy Martonis of the CSU School of Social Work as he was “going around the state finding people who are thinking about this, worrying about this, and doing something about it.”
“We’ve done some things to try and address this from the federal level, but none of it has been adequate so far, and I’m trying to think about what it is I can do to support you, which is why I’m here,” he said.
Throughout the discussion with Bennet, everyone from students to support staff and PSD Superintendent Brian Kingsley shared their perspectives on the challenges students face, what schools are doing to help and where more support is needed.
Ken Morales Flores, a student at Poudre High School, and Tayia Evans, a student at Poudre Community Academy, each shared their experiences of struggling with and overcoming mental health challenges.
Both students hope that as the stigma around receiving mental health care continues to decline, it will be easier for other students to ask for help. They believe more student-to-student support and opportunities to build community outside of the classroom are key elements required for schools to make a significant impact.
“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to share my story with everyone,” Evans said.
Flores said that when speaking with adults, he sometimes is not sure if they really heard him. This time, he walked away feeling content and hopeful. “I often don’t feel resolutions are reached or things will happen afterwards, but I feel different about this one,” he said. “I got everything out that I wanted to say.”
Liz Davis, director of student services for PSD, thought what the students shared was the most impactful part of the discussion. “Watching our students learn, grow and share their experiences was amazing to see. Sen. Bennet listened intently and asked thoughtful follow-up questions,” she said. “That visit is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Strength in partnership
“There is so much potential when large institutions like CSU and PSD collaborate for community impact,” said Amy Martonis, MSW program director in the CSU School of Social Work.
“I hope this fellowship program will be one among many that will strengthen and diversify the mental health workforce in Northern Colorado,” she said. “These strategic partnerships will play an important role in offering solutions that we cannot achieve on our own.”
Increasing access to graduate school
In addition to helping PSD students, the grant will lower the cost of obtaining an MSW for students participating in the program by paying for their internship in schools and some tuition, offering additional stipends for Spanish speakers, funding post-graduate fellowships in PSD and providing other professional development opportunities and resources. The program will support 45 MSW students over five years.
“We hope this grant will provide an opportunity to remove barriers for MSW students to access their education, especially for students from historically marginalized groups,” Davis said in a PSD press release.
The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.