$2 million federal grant to boost mental-health resources in Appalachian Ohio school districts


Columbus Dispatch

2 October 2020

Over the next five years, 110 mental-health specialists will be embedded into school districts across seven Appalachian Ohio counties, thanks to a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Ohio Department of Education applied for the highly competitive grant — only five states received one — and decided to focus on eastern and southeastern school districts after watching COVID-19 exacerbate children’s behavioral issues in the Appalachian region.

“We recognized there was a particular need in Appalachia,” Ohio schools superintendent Paola DeMaria said. “If a child is not in an emotional/social position to benefit from academic learning, then there’s a problem.”

State schools superintendent Paolo DeMario outside the Ohio Department of Education building at 25 S. Front St. (Barbara J. Perenic/ Dispatch file photo)

And those problems— the recent pandemic-related stress and anxiety as well as generational poverty and a sense of fatalism — are well-documented in Appalachian children, school psychologist Dr. Mike Fuller explained.

But Fuller, director of Muskingum Valley Educational Service Center, said he is hopeful for the future.

“I’ve spent almost my whole career in a rural setting … working with the bare necessities,” he said. “I don’t think this is an understatement when I say, this is a game changer for us.”

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, who spearheaded the effort, and fellow Republican Congressmen Steve Stivers, of Upper Arlington, Troy Balderson, of Zanesville, and Bob Gibbs, of Lakeville,  partnered with a local non-profit, the Appalachian Children’s Coalition (ACC) and regional educational service centers to develop a training program through Ohio University.

In collaboration with OU’s Patton College of Education, the program will place more than 100 clinicians into rural districts through 2025. 

“So often the needs of rural communities that I represent are at the back of everybody’s mind in the capital of Columbus, and even further behind in Washington,” Johnson said. “So I am very happy the DOE recognized the need in rural America for some help because there’s a lot of intellectual capital in eastern and southeastern Ohio.”

Tom Davis, Appalachian Children’s Coalition president, said he is optimistic the grant will provide a great opportunity to invest in some of the unique, generational issues in the region.

But he called the fight for advocacy and advancement of Appalachian children’s needs, especially when it comes to addressing mental health, a “marathon, not a sprint.” 

“We have to think about this developmentally and how do we unpack these issues from a long-term perspective,” Davis said.