Texas Tech researchers work together to connect young people with a broader array of treatment options.
A group of Texas Tech University researchers is working to expand available mental health resources for young people throughout West Texas, particularly those in rural areas, combining thorough assessments with an array of accessible treatment options.
The five faculty members are Caroline Cummings, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, whose work is focused on adolescents experiencing chronic pain; Brandy Pina-Watson, associate professor in psychological sciences, who will focus on helping adolescents manage stress;
Adam Schmidt, associate professor in psychological sciences, who will provide assessments of young people in advance of recommending possible treatment and service options; Jonathan Singer, assistant professor in psychological sciences, whose focus will be on grief therapy for adolescents; and Douglas Smith, chair and associate professor of couple, marriage and family therapy in the College of Human Sciences, whose work will focus on providing mental health services to children and families at the Children's Behavioral Health Clinic (CHBC).
“I think it's important to distinguish that even though this is one grant, these are all distinct projects,” Singer said. “We know there was a lot of loss during the COVID pandemic, so the goal is to help these kids manage their mental health condition and their grief and to understand that's their process and help them with coping.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on virtually everyone, its impacts on young people have been especially pronounced. Combining this with a dearth of both resources and providers in rural communities, the need for new and innovative approaches becomes clear.
“What we're learning from the research that is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there were definitely effects on children and on families as a result,” Piña-Watson said. “Being out of the classroom with a disconnection from other people means we are seeing an exacerbation of existing problems. Adding these programs and assessments is another way to provide more services to meet the needs.”
Cummings and Singer will work together with young people between the ages of 13 and 17 through both face-to-face and eventual telehealth options. Because the initiatives are new, they will launch as in-person programs and subsequently transition to remote availability. The expectation is to have resources more readily available to the rural population, eliminating travel time and keeping critical lines of communication open.
“Teens can have chronic pain from various kinds of sources,” Cummings said. “It can be chronic pain related to cancer, related to diabetes or related to migraine headaches. I will be holding monthly one-day workshops for teens that will help them learn different skills to manage their pain and help caregivers learn skills to help their child or teen manage their pain as well.
“The research suggests a lot of folks, as a function of the pandemic, have experienced increases in adverse mental health symptoms as well as declines in physical health. Our intent is to increase the access to care and be innovative in ways that address some of the health disparities evident in the context of the pandemic.”
In addition to the treatment models, Schmidt will lead the assessment piece that will provide a thorough baseline of a young person's mental and emotional health once they are referred.
“You can't really treat something if you don't know what you're looking at,” he said. “The assessments will allow us to figure out what we're looking at and what the best recommendations and approaches are. A lot of smaller districts don't have the resources to do a thorough psychiatric or psychological assessment and, when necessary, a neuropsychological assessment.”
Schmidt expects assessments to begin in person with most follow-up visits to take place remotely.
“Teens come in for the first assessment, and it is an all-day affair,” he said. “We prepare a thorough psychological report and share that with the parents, and if they allow us, with school personnel and other treating professionals so we can make an evidence-based recommendation based on what the report shows.
“Our goal is to provide continued follow-up, so it is not just a one-and-done deal. We check in with them again in three months and six months to find out how things are working at school and if the recommendations are working for them. If not, maybe we need to reevaluate the situation. That makes this assessment model unique.”
For Smith, the work will involve continuing an ongoing partnership between UMC and Texas Tech's Couple, Marriage and Family Therapy graduate programs at the Children's Behavioral Health Clinic.
“The primary benefit of the project is increasing access to mental health services for children and adolescents,” he said. “Most of Texas is critically underserved for mental health and the project helps meet a critical need.”
The primary emphasis of all the programs is to reach young people in need of mental health resources who might not otherwise be reached and help them work through the unique challenges of adolescence. Each initiative connects to and complements the others.
“For my group, it's dealing with general life stressors,” Piña-Watson said. “We know teens have a multitude of stressors, many brought on by COVID-19, but many which are just part of that developmental period, so this teaches them adaptive coping skills through mindfulness-based interventions, teaching them to pay attention to their present-moment experience on purpose, without judgment, and be able to make strategic decisions about what they need emotionally and physically to deal with the stressors coming into their lives.”
The bottom line is having an impact on as many young lives as possible.
“Where do kids spend most of their time during the year? It's at school,” Schmidt said. “We are trying to fill in missing pieces in terms of treatment services. Our hope is to provide an ongoing continuum of care they wouldn't have had access to.”