A doctor and another staff person with a clipboard talk with a third person.
The Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative embeds clinical psychology doctoral trainees from VCU in health safety net clinics in Richmond. (Courtesy photo)

$1.4M grant will support free behavioral health services to underserved youth

The grant will expand VCU’s Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative with a focus on rural and low-income minority youth and their families.

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A $1.4 million federal grant awarded to a Virginia Commonwealth University professor will support the training of graduate students in VCU’s Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative, which provides free behavioral and mental health services to underserved populations in health safety net primary care settings in the Richmond area.

The grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to Heather Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, will expand the program and help address the large unmet behavioral health needs of diverse patients, with an emphasis on rural youth and racial and ethnic minority youth in Central Virginia.

Jones, who co-directs the Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative with Bruce Rybarczyk, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology, said the grant will allow the program to expand its partnerships with three clinics: a safety net VCU clinic primarily serving low-income Black youth and their families, a community-based family medicine clinic serving a large number of Latinx immigrants, and a community hospital serving rural Central Virginia.

“Together, these clinics provide over 100,000 annual visits to the underserved,” Jones said. “I would also note that a significant goal of these federal grants is to increase the number of Black and Latinx behavioral health providers trained to work in integrated care clinics — a goal about which I feel strongly, as a BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] clinical psychologist.”

The grant, “The VCU Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative: Meeting the Behavioral Health Needs of Diverse Youth and their Families,” follows a similar award from the Health Resources and Services Administration in 2019. That grant expanded the program to include training in substance abuse screening and treatment, behavioral health services to supplement medical treatment for opioid use disorder, and telehealth services to primary care clinics in rural Virginia.

Heather Jones.
Heather Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Since 2010, the Primary Care Psychology Training Collaborative has trained more than 120 doctoral students, addressing a professional shortage in the treatment of children and adolescents with behavioral health problems. It is the largest federally funded training collaborative for psychology graduate students working in integrated care in the country and has had representatives from a previous White House administration visit in order to learn more about its model of care.

With the current grant, Jones said, the collaborative will help meet the critical mental health needs of underserved youth amid the pandemic.

“There are children, disproportionately from Black and Latinx families, who have experienced significant loss and disruption of normal life during this pandemic,” Jones said. “Rates of anxiety and depression among youth across the country have risen. Our patients and their families here in Central Virginia tell us about the significant stresses they have experienced during the past year. Therefore, this is such an important time to be focusing on youth mental and behavioral health and to be working with families to increase resiliency and focus on familial strengths.”

In addition to Jones, the project will involve faculty supervisors Rybarczyk; Kaprea Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education in the VCU School of Education; and Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., a VCU alum and community practitioner.

The collaborative is also supported by medical teams led by Romesh Wijesooriya, M.D., an assistant professor of general pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU; Stephanie Crewe, M.D., an associate professor and chief of the division of adolescent medicine at CHoR; and Mark Ryan, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health in the VCU School of Medicine.

Jones said the team is also looking forward to working with Community Memorial Health CEO Scott Burnette to set up telehealth care for Central Virginia's rural youth, who have very limited access to behavioral health care.

Alyssa Ward, Ph.D., a VCU psychology alum and the behavioral health clinical director for the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, will serve as a consultant on the grant and will provide workshops for the student clinicians about compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, two critical issues that contribute to burnout among behavioral health practitioners.

Over the grant’s four-year duration, it will fund the training of 24 clinical and counseling psychology students and 24 school counseling students.

“We look forward to being able to continue increasing the behavioral health workforce and serving our community for years to come,” Jones said.