Tarleton Center Already Taking Action on Surgeon General’s Advice

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

STEPHENVILLE, Texas — Tarleton State University’s Center for Child Well-being is ahead of the latest advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General calling for swift action to curb the growing mental health crisis among America’s youth.

Created in 2019, the center offers direct pediatric mental and behavioral health services to North Central Texas families through partnerships with eight rural school districts and provides specialized training to future practitioners.

The Surgeon General’s report — issued last week — outlines recommendations for families, educators and schools, and media and technology companies to improve the mental health of children, adolescents and young adults worsened by the pandemic.

“Research and data signaled an increase in youth mental health challenges even before COVID-19,” says Dr. Stephanie Robertson, Director of the Tarleton Center for Child Well-being and Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences. “Limited access to specialized mental health resources doesn’t help.”

Erath County has been designated a Health Service Provider Shortage Area by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 1990. Federal statistics show that 24 percent of the county population lives below the poverty level.

As a result, many area young people lack healthcare coverage and are directed to the Fort Worth-Dallas area for psychological evaluations. Waitlists can exceed a year, Robertson said. “That’s too long.”

The ratio of mental health providers to Erath County residents is 1 to 78, and most area school districts are too small to employ full-time psychologists.

“When complicated psychological profiles emerge in their students, prolonged difficulties often follow,” she said. “As Surgeon General (Vivek) Murthy points out in his advisory, the best way to reduce the impact of mental health disorders is to identify and treat them early.”

That’s the reason Tarleton stepped up two years ago to develop a multidisciplinary center to provide low-cost consultation and psychological and behavioral health evaluations to Erath County families with school-aged children. More than 100 families have tapped into the Center for Child Well-being since 2019.

In collaboration with the departments of Psychological Services, Social Work, Educational Diagnostics and Counseling, the center also offers parent support along with evidence-based therapy for young children with disruptive behavior disorders; psycho-educational workshops for local businesses, educators and medical providers; and opportunities for student interns to receive true-to-career experience as mental health clinicians.

A licensed psychologist and licensed specialist in school psychology, Dr. Robertson is adamant that more must be done in rural Texas communities to address America’s youth mental health emergency.

According to a 2020 report by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, more than half a million Texas children and adolescents have severe mental health needs, but only 20 percent receive specialized care.

“We can do more, and we must do more,” Dr. Robertson said.

Tarleton’s President, Dr. James Hurley, agrees.

“We are committed to creating an innovative, prevention-focused ecosystem where all children in our region are supported and provided services for emerging and existing mental health needs,” he said.

To that end, Tarleton is expanding its health sciences and human services degree offerings, including a PhD in counseling (pending approval by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board), and moving the Center for Child Well-being into a larger, state-of-the-art facility on the Stephenville campus in early spring.

Efforts are ongoing to develop free, online continuing education opportunities to increase mental and behavioral health resources for public educators and to reduce any barriers to access for care.

“Our goal is to become not only the premier comprehensive regional university in Texas but in the nation,” President Hurley said. “For that to happen, we must address the most pressing need in our region — increased access to quality physical and mental healthcare.”

A founding member of The Texas A&M University System, Tarleton is breaking records — in enrollment, research, scholarship, athletics, philanthropy and engagement — while transforming the lives of more than 15,000 students in Stephenville, Fort Worth, Waco, Midlothian, A&M RELLIS at Bryan and online. True to Tarleton’s values of excellence, integrity, and respect, academic programs emphasize real world learning and address regional, state and national needs.