The Mitchell Model: Uniting IU and elementary students to improve mental health
Jan 5, 2024
School counselors at Burris Elementary and Hatfield Elementary in Mitchell, Indiana, have a case load of more than 340 students, some of whom are managing trauma and overwhelming life changes. A new partnership is helping to fill the gap in mental health care access for children in the area.
IU Master of Social Work students and faculty advisors discuss their work with elementary students in Mitchell, Indiana, which is helping fill the gap in mental health care access for children in the area. Photo by Kyla Cox Deckard, IU Center for Rural Engagement
Through the partnership — which includes Mitchell Community Schools, Families Forever, the city of Bedford and the Indiana University School of Social Work — Master of Social Work students Grace DiSilvestro, Hailey Lawhead and Lilli Norris are using play, sensory and grounding techniques to help children navigate stressors and build skills for a lifetime of healthy approaches to big emotions.
The Master of Social Work students engage elementary students in art, sand play, puppets and soothing sounds to help the children self-regulate and work through challenges they are facing. Supported in part by National Opioids Settlement funding, the program provides early mental health intervention and skill development. The team strives to reduce risk of mental illness and substance use later in life and to build children’s resilience.
“One of the grounding techniques I use with them is the five-finger breathing technique,” Lawhead said, describing the child tracing their hand while doing breathing exercises. “I’ve seen kids use it walking back to their classrooms.”
“It is bringing extra hands on deck but also going deeper in helping them process trauma,” Norris said. “This area that we work in has a history of generational trauma, generational poverty and substance use. You can see it and feel it when working with families. Some kids have experienced more adverse events than some people experience in a lifetime.”
DiSilvestro, Lawhead and Norris each work approximately a day and a half in the schools during the school week to complete at least 300 hours per semester for their practicum experience. During these hours, they engage with elementary students who are referred by school counselors in one-on-one appointments and group sessions. The Master of Social Work students are supported and supervised by School of Social Work adjunct instructor Sara Farmer. School of Social Work associate professor John Keesler has coordinated and facilitated this program by connecting community and IU resources.
“This initiative is important because we realize that we have a behavioral health crisis in Indiana among children and youth,” Keesler said. “If we are going to address that crisis, we need to develop the workforce and address community barriers, and we can do both through this project.”
IU Master of Social Work students are working with elementary-age children in Mitchell, Indiana, to reduce the risk of mental illness and substance use later in life and to build children's resilience. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Rural Engagement
The program builds upon recent rural mental health collaborations led by Farmer and Keesler. In 2021, Keesler examined higher-than-average adverse childhood experiences scores among students in Lawrence County through a partnership with United Way of South Central Indiana. Adverse childhood experiences are potentially traumatic events that occur up to age 17, including violence, abuse, neglect, growing up in a household with substance use disorder or mental health problems, and separation from parents due to incarceration.
Families Forever is a grassroots, nonprofit organization in Bedford that has a history of collaborations with local providers, including juvenile justice, probation and schools. It has an established relationship with Mitchell Community Schools through a partnership with the United Way of South Central Indiana on youth mentoring and truancy prevention programs. With emerging and strengthening relationships with North Lawrence Community Schools, they continue to explore opportunities for expansion of the rural youth mental health project in Bedford.
“It is great for the youth in our communities to receive the education and values that this program presents,” Bedford Mayor Sam Craig said. “When they are faced with challenges, they can think back to these conversations. It opens their minds to a more positive way of thinking.”
In 2020, Farmer published a needs assessment with fellow Master of Social Work student Kristi Schultz based in Martin County, focusing on opportunities to increase access to mental health care in a rural setting. The team, informed by residents and local organizations and supported with funding from the IU Center for Rural Engagement, recommended an increase in place-based services that would be more accessible and less likely to be stigmatized. Schools were identified as a well-positioned venue to host mental health services.
“This is something that has been homegrown,” Farmer said. “The superintendent has supported and bolstered it. It is a Mitchell model.”
Mitchell Community Schools Superintendent Brent Comer envisions a holistic “Mitchell Model” that supports students and increases local professional pathways for local students who have an interest in social work.
“The core of the Mitchell Model is the whole-person approach,” Comer said. “We know that we do well with school, but before you can get to academics, we have a lot we need to address first. Mental health needs were big before COVID, but after that shared trauma, we are seeing much more.
“The value of having the social worker in the buildings is that they start building relationships with kids in the schools, and we are seeing an increase in kids and families that feel safe and want the help of a social worker. They are part of us now; they have become a familiar face.”
Now a graduate of the School of Social Work’s master’s degree program, Farmer developed this practicum plan, trained Master of Social Work students and provides clinical supervision. Keesler, who also serves on the board of Families Forever, facilitates the collaboration and garnered funding support from the Bedford City Council. Families Forever provides the clinical records system, and the IU Center for Rural Engagement provides computers for the graduate students.
From left, associate professor John Keesler; IU Master of Social Work students Lilli Norris, Grace DiSilvestro and Hailey Lawhead; and field instructor Sara Farmer stop for a photo outside of Bedford City Hall in November 2023. Photo by Kyla Cox Deckard, IU Center for Rural Engagement
“What gets me excited is the collaboration,” Keesler said. “This is what social work is about. It is critical for rural communities to leverage their resources to fill in gaps. This project is quite unique in that we have an alum who said ‘Let’s do something about rural children’s mental health.’ Rural community work is about leveraging resources, and that includes relationships.”
The Master of Social Work students are completing their practicum experience through Families Forever, which is providing mental health services at Mitchell Schools during the 2023-24 academic year. Norris, who grew up in Lawrence County, gained a fresh perspective around the community’s service networks.
“I am from a rural community, but working in one is different than living in one,” Norris said. “Getting to see how the systems all impact the community has opened my eyes and made me realize how much of a need there is, and how much we are needed.”
Lawhead intended to only serve adults in her social work practice, but she changed her mind 10 weeks into her practicum experience.
“This experience has done that so much for me,” Lawhead said. “I originally said I was never going to work with kids. And then I thought I would give it a try while I am still in school. I ended up loving it so much more than working with adults.”
DiSilvestro, who moved to Indiana from California to attend IU, has gained a new perspective on the ways rural communities function and the impact that systems have on individual health and well-being. She said this experience is inspiring her to work in advocacy to affect systemic change.
“I learned so much about the history of the town, the systems, change and advocacy,” DiSilvestro said. “It makes me want to do some macro social work and program development to make bigger change.”
The IU students agreed that they hoped these services for young children would start a positive ripple effect to reduce stigma and strengthen mental health among students and their families. As students are served within the schools, it opens lines of communication caregivers, giving Master of Social Work students the opportunity to connect them to resources and support.
“These conversations with both kids and families start a cultural shift where people are more interested in talking about their experiences,” DiSilvestro said.
DiSilvestro, Lawhead and Norris said they hope this program will inspire other Master of Social Work students to pursue rural-based experiences and continue to serve children and families who need these resources. All three are considering pursuing professional opportunities in Indiana after graduation.
“We are grateful to Mitchell Community Schools for being so open and welcoming to us,” Lawhead said. “This initiative is important because we are doing work to prevent generational trauma.”