By Rachel Baldauf
UNC Health is partnering with Bladen County Schools to give students access to behavioral health care.
The pilot program, which was announced Wednesday by UNC Health, is expected to begin this fall. As part of the initiative, four in-person therapists will be available throughout the district, and students struggling with depression, anxiety and other issues will have access to telehealth appointments with specialists and psychiatrists through “virtual care centers” within the schools.
Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear, a healthcare nonprofit in southeastern North Carolina, will supply the district with a community health worker who will connect Bladen County families to community resources.
Like much of rural southeastern North Carolina, Bladen County struggles with a shortage of mental health professionals. The county does not have any registered child and adolescent psychiatrists, adolescent medicine specialists or developmental/behavioral specialists, UNC Health said in its announcement.
That means many struggling children must travel outside the county to find care, which is a challenge for some low-income families in the rural area.
“Youth across our state are experiencing a behavioral health crisis, and a lack of resources in rural areas is compounding the challenges,” Dr. Mike Steiner, pediatrician in chief at UNC Children’s, said in a news release. “We are optimistic that this project presents a terrific opportunity to turn the tide and improve treatment for behavioral health conditions.”
In April, NC Child gave North Carolina an “F” grade in mental health on the nonprofit group’s annual child health report card. More than one in five high school students in the state said they have seriously considered attempting suicide, according to NC Child.
The Bladen County project is supported by funding from The Duke Endowment. Steiner said he believes the school-based treatment model could eventually expand to other school districts throughout the state and beyond.
“Mental and behavioral health problems are now becoming the most prevalent health problems that children and youth face,” he said. “Healthcare systems are trying to adapt and meet these increasingly common health problems, and hopefully this program is part of a solution.”
In the news release from UNC Health, Jason Atkinson, superintendent of Bladen County Schools, said the project will help combat school absenteeism and improve student performance.
The Bladen County school district, which serves about 3,800 students across 13 schools, typically lags behind the state in performance measures.
In Bladen, 71% of students in third through eighth grades were not proficient in math during the 2021-2022 school year, compared to 50% statewide. For reading, 69% were not proficient in Bladen, compared to 52% statewide.