Missouri to create center for rural students' mental health

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COLUMBIA – The $10 million grant will create a National Center for Rural School Mental Health that will research what works in rural schools when it comes to mental health.

“This is important because a lot of rural schools have been overlooked,” Wendy Reinke, an MU professor in the College of Education said. “This is going to open up a national tool kit that will help rural schools.”

Reinke said a quarter of the youth in Missouri go to rural schools and researchers will focus on prevention with the grant.

“These students don’t have access to mental health services and they are pretty distant and remote,” Reinke said. “The grant will provide a lot of ways to shape the future of how rural schools operate.”

The North Callaway R-I school district knows about the lack of resources firsthand. The district covers more than 320 square miles and has students that live from Hatton to Williamsburg.

“We are outnumbered in the needs of our students and our teachers to how many people can address those needs from a professional standpoint,” North Callaway superintendent Brian Garner said.

Garner said he’s optimistic about how the research can apply to his school district, but he’s skeptical about how big of an impact the $10 million will make.

“I believe every rural school could tell you what they are lacking,” Garner said. “We don’t necessarily need a study for that, but if the study helps better address those problems, that’s great.”

Kevin O’Neal is a math teacher and football coach at North Callaway High School. He said one of the biggest concerns he has about his students is their mental health.

“It’s tough when a kid goes through those emotional problems or that anxiety or whatever it happens to be. You take that home at night,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal’s son will be a freshman in high school in fall 2019. He said he understands what the students go through, not just as a teacher but also as a parent.

“It’s a time in life when they’re trying to figure themselves out and trying to figure the world out,” he said. “Some of them think they know it all, and some of them are lost in an ocean.”

O’Neal said his goal as a teacher is to support students every step of the way.

“I teach math, but I tell these kids all the time my ultimate goal is to help these kids be successful in whatever they want to be in life,” he said.

The research program will kick off in June. The grant money will be used to survey more than 100 rural schools in Missouri, Virginia and Montana.