New UNI program addresses urgent need for school psychologists

A new program from the University of Northern Iowa and Green Hills Area Education Agency will help increase student access to mental health services in high-need, rural areas of western Iowa currently struggling to hire school psychologists. 

Through a “grow your own” distance education program, the project will increase the number of school psychologists in these areas by 20% across a five-year grant period.

“This is a great opportunity to work with Green Hills AEA on creating a distance program to put more school psychologists in rural schools. The school psychology faculty at UNI are grateful for their commitment to the practice of school psychology in Iowa,” said Nicole Skaar, associate professor of school psychology at UNI. “This addition of 10 school psychologists over the 5 years of the project will provide greater access to mental health services to rural students in Western Iowa.”

The current ratio of school psychologists to students in Iowa is approximately 1:1400, about half the number of school psychologists per student recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% of adolescents aged 13-18 live with a mental health condition. And in a study by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 29% of Iowa high school students reported experiencing depression symptoms (feeling sad or hopeless every day for at least two weeks). Mental health struggles can also impact on student success — NAMI reports that 50% of high school students with a mental illness drop out of school.

“Anxiety and depression are certainly on the rise in the adolescent population. I hear on a regular basis from principals, superintendents and teachers that this is where they are struggling,” said Skaar. “We need to get students support and help.”

The first cohort of five school psychology students is in the final stages of being admitted for the first class, beginning in January 2020. By 2024, the program will add 10 school psychologists to rural school districts in western Iowa, improving the school psychologist to student ratio in Iowa and serving about 8,000 students.