UAMS Receives Grants from Blue & You Foundation to Expand, Build Mental Health Programs

By Tim Taylor

Srinivasa Gokarakonda, M.D., explains the need for the adolescent and young adult addiction treatment program he will lead with Jason Williams, Psy.D. (left).

Srinivasa Gokarakonda, M.D., explains the need for the adolescent and young adult addiction treatment program he will lead with Jason Williams, Psy.D. (left).

The Blue & You Foundation is a charitable foundation established and funded by Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield to promote better health in Arkansas. Since 2001, the Blue & You Foundation has awarded more than $58 million to nonprofits and governmental agencies in all 75 counties.

A four-year grant worth $1,610,477 will be used to create the Pathways to Wellness program, to be overseen by Nikki Edge, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and Laura Dunn, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Psychiatric Research Institute.

The Pathways to Wellness program builds on two grants previously awarded by the Blue & You Foundation — the Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools (TRIS) and the UAMS Health AR ConnectNow youth- and school-focused marketing campaign.

Pathways to Wellness will include a virtual Wellness Welcome Center for youth and families featuring general resources about mental health, links to self-administered mental health screening tools, a digital toolkit of resources to support mental health destigmatization, treatment options and support for accessing care, including links to crisis supports, national crisis hotlines including 988 and directories of mental health providers. It will also create and distribute online promotion and prevention programming through UAMS Health AR ConnectNow, including caregiver webinars and addressing the stigma associated with mental illness.

“Trauma can lead to a number of negative outcomes as children grow up, including substance use disorder, poor performance in school, as well as negative outcomes for families,” said Dunn at the press conference. “Our goal with this new program, Pathways to Wellness, is to establish new ways to help get youth and families the resources and help that they need.”

TRIS, which provides training and resources to school personnel throughout Arkansas to help them recognize the impact trauma can have on their students, is overseen by UAMS’ Sufna John, Ph.D., and Edge, who said more than 7,500 educators have undergone the program’s educational training since it was launched in 2021.

“The truth is that when rates of trauma exposure are as high as you’ve been hearing about, and mental health concerns are so widespread, we cannot build an army of therapists big enough to tackle every aspect of the problem,” said Edge. “So it becomes the job of the teacher, the coach and the parent. And we have to prepare caring adults to be able to do this job, to know how to support the positive mental health of all youth, and foster resilience in children who’ve experienced trauma or other risk factors.”

TRIS will use the Blue & You grant to develop an in-depth training series that will help educators learn new ways to connect with children who are struggling, said Edge. “Guided by a teacher advisory board, we’re going to be levering technology in exciting and innovative ways to stay connected to teachers so that we can support them week in and week out as they do this incredibly important work.”

A second grant, for $714,809 over two years, will be used to launch an adolescent and young adult addiction treatment program at the Psychiatric Research Institute. The program will provide comprehensive assessment and treatment of adolescents and young adults between the ages 12 and 21 with substance use disorders, as well as a broad range of community outreach efforts to raise awareness and enhance prevention, screening and referral to treatment.

“We are currently in a major public health crisis. Since the year 2000, there have been half a million deaths from drug overdoses in the United States,” said Srinivasa Gokarakonda, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, who will oversee the program with Jason Williams, Psy.D., head of the department’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “In 2021 alone, we had about 100,000 deaths nationally from drug overdoses. And we don’t have a program that addresses these problems in the state for adolescents. Establishing this program, the Adolescent and Young Adult Addiction Treatment Program, has been my dream for almost five years.”