Federal Grant Expands Mental Health Training Program

September 13, 2021

In 2017-18, when the Wegmans School of Nursing at St. John Fisher College was awarded two grants totaling $2.2 million to train students to respond to patients using an interdisciplinary approach, mental health was already a national crisis. Now, after nearly two years of isolation, fear, and uncertainty spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a workforce that is prepared to deliver the best possible care to those struggling with mental health is an even greater necessity.

Dr. Rob Rice discusses a new $1.8 million grant that will provide significant funding to train underrepresented students in the Mental Health Counseling and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner master’s degree programs to serve and care for the communities in which they reside.

During a press conference featuring local, state, and federal government officials, faculty at the Wegmans School of Nursing announced a new $1.8 million grant that will provide significant funding to train underrepresented students in the Mental Health Counseling and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner master’s degree programs to serve and care for the communities in which they reside.

The grant was awarded by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training (BHWET) Program and marks the fourth round of HRSA funding - totaling more than $4 million dollars – the College has received since 2016 to support the training of mental health professionals.   The grants were secured in collaboration with Fisher’s Office of Sponsored Programs.

“The grant that we celebrate today comes at a vital time and will provide our mental health counseling and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner graduates with advanced training and the specialized skills they will need to serve their patients well,” said Dr. Gerard J. Rooney, president of the College. “This programming is both innovative and progressive, and we are so proud of our faculty who lead these initiatives. It is aligned with our mission of providing affordable and accessible educational opportunities to all who seek them. And most importantly, it is led by good, disciplined, and knowledgeable practitioners who serve on the frontlines and teach those who will do so in the future.”

The program focuses on integrating mental health and medical services in pediatric and primary care settings with a special emphasis on recruiting trainees from underrepresented groups who are interested in working in high-need and/or high-demand regions within the Rochester and the Finger Lakes Region. Trainees will develop specialized skills required to work with children, adolescents, and young adults who are at risk for mental illness, substance use, suicide, or other serious medical co-morbidities.

Dr. Rob Rice, associate professor of mental health in the School of Nursing who serves as the lead investigator on the grant, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues of mental health for those facing poverty. Historically, Rice said, those living below the poverty line have disproportionately faced unemployment and barriers to health care, and are seeing these issues worsen as the pandemic continues.

“Collectively, we know these burdens create a negative impact on the mental health and well-being of residents,” said Rice, who added that these issues are often felt more by communities of color who are underrepresented in the health care workforce, as well.

“In our region, individuals from diverse backgrounds, including African Americans and Hispanic and Latino communities, have few options to access diverse mental health practitioners with whom they can connect on a cultural level, further contributing to negative health outcomes,” Rice explained. “Past HRSA studies have shown that a culturally and linguistically diverse health care workforce contributes to increased patient satisfaction, better communication between patients and providers, and increased access to care. Our grant attempts to close that gap by increasing the number of diverse mental health care providers in the region and creating capacity for them to see patients in a non-stigmatizing environment that promotes adherence to mental health services (i.e., their doctor’s office).”

As mental health issues continue to affect residents across the Rochester and Finger Lakes regions, government officials applauded the School’s efforts to address this growing need.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said, “The COVID-19 pandemic generated and exposed the extent of mental illness in our communities and spurred a common desire to do more to address this public health challenge, which is why we directed significant resources for this in the COVID-19 relief bills.  Not only is it imperative to supply quality care and services to individuals in need, but it is also crucial to make sure that mental health professionals reflect the communities they serve. St. John Fisher College is making a substantial commitment to the training and diversification of their students – and thanks to their efforts, those at risk for behavioral health disorders in the Rochester area, youth in particular, will be provided with the highest level of care and support.”

U.S. Congressman Joe Morelle also offered support for this critical work.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis so many in our community already faced, and as we continue our recovery, we cannot leave anyone behind,” Morelle said. “This grant program will play a critical role in combating the trauma of our global health crisis and ensuring providers better understand the challenges vulnerable communities face. I am incredibly grateful to St. John Fisher College for their commitment to prioritizing mental health and uplifting families during this challenging time.”

This program is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $1,845,784 with 0% financed with non-governmental sources. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit HRSA.gov.