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New $12 Million NIMH Grant Funds Center to Improve Delivery of Child Mental Health Services

Research team from the IN STEP Children's Mental Health Research Center

UC San Diego hosted a kick-off meeting for the new ImplementatioN Science and Team Effectiveness in Practice (IN STEP) Children’s Mental Health Research Center on Sept. 7, 2022 and welcomed collaborators from UC Davis, UCLA, UCSF, San Diego State University and University of Central Florida. Photo by Erik Jepsen/University Communications.

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Researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine received a five-year, $12 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to launch a new research center focused on improving access to and delivery of child mental health services.

Directed by Lauren Brookman-Frazee, PhD and Gregory Aarons, PhD, the new ImplementatioN Science and Team Effectiveness in Practice (IN STEP) Children’s Mental Health Research Center at UC San Diego will develop and test team-based implementation strategies to improve services for children with mental health and developmental needs across systems including schools, specialty mental health, pediatric health care and child welfare.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 1 in 5 children under 17 years old in the United States reported experiencing a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral challenge. As noted in the December 2021 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Children’s Mental Health, mental health challenges have significantly increased since the onset of the pandemic. Although evidence-based interventions exist, they are not often used in routine services and many children do not receive needed mental health care.

The Surgeon General’s advisory highlighted the urgent need to address the mental health crisis in our nation’s youth. Recommendations included expanding mental health support in educational, community and childcare settings; ensuring that all children have access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care; and scaling up efforts to implement evidence-based interventions more rapidly. These recommendations will be addressed by the community-partnered research conducted by the new IN STEP Center.

“The new center brings together experts in children’s mental health services and implementation research, evidence-based practices to address mental health and developmental needs, team effectiveness research and computer science to create the infrastructure for innovative and high-impact research that will improve the effectiveness and quality of children’s mental health services.” Brookman-Frazee explained.

The IN STEP Center is co-led by Nicole Stadnick, PhD, MPH and Marisa Sklar, PhD both from UC San Diego, and Shawn Burke, PhD of the University of Central Florida. The research team also includes investigators from UC San Diego, UC Davis, UCLA, UCSF, San Diego State University, University of Central Florida, and community partners across multiple service systems.

The center will conduct four primary research projects concurrently during the five-year grant period.

The signature R01 research project, co-led by Miguel Villodas, PhD (San Diego State University) and Linda Pfiffner, PhD (UCSF), will combine team development interventions, including team charters and communication training, to improve the implementation and effectiveness of the Collaborative Life Skills Program used in schools for children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

The three additional research projects (R34) will focus on:

  • Improving the shared decision-making process regarding mental health services by child and family teams in Child Welfare Services, co-led by Danielle Fettes, PhD and Sklar.
  • Examining the effectiveness of team charters to improve distance training for autism evidence-based practices in schools and specialty mental health services, co-led by Aubyn Stahmer, PhD (UC Davis) and Brookman-Frazee.
  • Testing team communication training to improve depression screening in a pediatric health care system, led by Stadnick.

The center will also fund two pilot projects (R03) per year led by community partners and early career researchers.

At the foundation of the center’s work is engagement with the community. “Instead of working in a traditional laboratory, our work will bring us directly to multiple areas where children are already receiving mental health care,” said Aarons. “Our goal is to find the optimal team-based approaches to improve mental health outcomes and make a real-world impact for our community.”

The grant was awarded through NIMH’s Advanced Laboratories for Accelerating the Reach and Impact of Treatments for Youth and Adults with Mental Illness (ALACRITY) Research Center program. The ALACRITY program funds new research centers focused on increasing the effectiveness of existing mental health interventions, improving the delivery and quality of evidence-based services and accelerating the implementation of new practices in diverse, real-world settings. The IN STEP Center is the most recently awarded of the 14 ALACRITY centers across the country.

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