ASU Psychologist Recognized for Addressing Mental Health Needs

Appalachian State University psychology professor Kurt D. Michael has spent his academic career focused on improving mental health services for children and adolescents living in rural areas.

That devotion has earned Dr. Michael the James E. Holshouser Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service from the UNC Board of Governors. The award was established by the Board of Governors in 2007 to encourage, identify, recognize and reward distinguished public service and outreach by faculty across the University system. It includes a $7,500 cash prize.

Dr. Michael meets with volunteers who work in Ashe County’s ASC Center.

The award was presented to Dr. Michael by UNC President Tom Ross and Public Service Award Committee members during the October 24 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors in Chapel Hill.

“I am truly humbled to receive the James E. Holshouser Award for Excellence in Public Service,” Dr. Michael said. “My most cherished public service contribution is the amelioration of suffering among a significant number of young people in North Carolina. The Assessment, Support and Counseling Center has been my passion and I will be perfectly content serving in this manner for the rest of my career.”

Dr. Michael is a child clinical psychologist and member of Appalachian’s faculty since 1999. He spearheaded a significant initiative in the Watauga County Schools to address serious mental health concerns facing students, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, family conflicts, aggression and suicidal thinking. All of these issues can be impediments to students’ academic success.

Dr. Michael has been sensitive to the mental health needs of students who are unable to receive services because of economic or other access barriers (e.g., availability, transportation) since his first job in school mental health in 1989.

“I would hear from principals that they had students who needed to be seen by mental health professionals but couldn’t get an appointment, either because of lengthy waiting lists or insufficient expertise to provide treatment,” he said. “So I began trying to design a service delivery partnership working with the schools and taking advantage of the fact Appalachian trains mental health clinicians.”

Dr. Michael founded the Assessment, Support and Counseling (ASC) Center at Watauga High School in 2006 to address these concerns. It links the expertise of university-affiliated licensed mental health providers, school counselors, social workers, local healthcare clinicians, and student resource officers to provide students in need with interdisciplinary intervention.

His goal was to combat barriers to mental health treatment seeking, such as transportation limitations, financial issues, and the stigma often associated with mental health by providing on-site treatment to students with unmet behavioral and psychological needs.

The program was expanded in 2011 to Ashe County and in 2013 to Alleghany County.

Dr. Michael and colleagues after receiving the James E. Holshouser Jr Award for Excellence in Public Service.

Dr. Jim Denniston, chair of Appalachian’s Department of Psychology, Dr. Will Canu and other colleagues in the department nominated Dr. Michael for the award for his innovative approach to addressing critical mental health needs in the local schools, and for his mentorship of graduate students in the department.

“Working in collaboration with school counselors, social workers and others who are serving these students, Dr. Michael and his interdisciplinary colleagues provide services at the schools, directly addressing barriers of availability, transportation and stigma,” colleagues said. “His work, along with his scientific study of the effectiveness of interventions in school settings inspires our graduate students to take up the mantel of researching, understanding and intervening on critical mental health issues.”

Funding for ASC Center services comes from a combination of sources, including a North Carolina Department of Public Instruction grant that runs through 2015, contributions from the county schools and in-kind donations of time by licensed professionals like Dr. Michael and students in Appalachian’s graduate programs in marriage and family therapy, social work, and clinical psychology. “The schools need community practitioners to serve these students, and here we are with all of our resources at Appalachian. To me, it was an obvious marriage,” he said.

ASC now serves 200-300 students annually at no cost to their families. Services include consultation/education with faculty and administration regarding mental health issues, individual psychotherapy, family therapy, crisis intervention, assessment, diagnosis and group therapy. The ASC Team has also created web-based mental health resources for youth in the High Country, including a website to assist youth in crisis titled: www.highcountryhelp.com.

“The ASC Center services are provided to students at the very location where they typically spend the majority of their day – in school,” he said. “By providing services at school and at no cost to students, the barriers of transportation and economic strain are removed immediately. Moreover, because the ASC Center is designed to be fully embedded within the school milieu, stigma is regularly reduced because the students are served in a manner that honors their privacy by being part of the available menu of student services, which in addition to comprehensive mental health includes academic advising, college preparation, nursing care and disciplinary activities.”

Dr. Michael estimates that 65 to 70 percent of the students who come to the center with significant symptoms, such persistent suicidal thinking or self-injury, no longer have those ailments at the end of the treatment. As a result, the students are maintaining or improving their grades, having fewer discipline referrals, attending school, and graduating.

“This partnership also gives Appalachian’s students real-world clinical experience before they graduate,” Dr. Michael said. “It advances the university’s training mission and creates workforce development for the region. We know the rural setting where we live has a dearth of providers. We are trying to create a sustainable workforce development program for school mental health here in the community where we want to train and retain these graduates.”

The success of ASC has been documented in medical and mental health journals since its inception, including North Carolina Medical Journal, Children and Youth Services Review, Advances in School Mental Health Promotion and The Community Psychologist. A description of some of the ASC Center services also appears in The Handbook of Culturally Responsive School Mental Health: Advancing Research, Training, Practice and Policy and the 2nd edition of the Handbook of School Mental Health. Dr. Michael and his colleagues also have presented at professional conferences in the U.S. and internationally.

Dr. Michael holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in psychology from Utah State University and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He also interned in child clinical and pediatric psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

He is associate editor of the Journal of Child and Family Studies and is the co-founder of the Carolina Network for School Mental Health www.carolinanetwork.org.