Center for Rural School Health and Education Receives Money to Improve Rural Mental Health – University of Denver Newsroom

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Once a month, Elaine Belansky packs her car and makes the four-and-a-half-hour drive to the San Luis Valley. She’s memorized the journey, noting seasonal milestones along the way, like the trees changing on Kenosha Pass or watching out for black ice near Fairplay. After all, this marks her 24th year making the monthly trip, the hallmark of her work with the Center for Rural School Health and Education (CRSHE) in the Morgridge College of Education.
Belansky is a research professor and serves as CRSHE’s director. She and a team of fellow researchers started CRSHE in 2018 after joining the University of Denver, a continuation of their work at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campuspartnering with rural communities to address issues of concern through a community-based participatory research approach.
Recently, CRSHE received a grant from the Caring for Colorado Foundation to strengthen mental health among students and staff members in rural Colorado schools. Through the grant, the Center will implement a five-year equity-driven plan, supporting 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley and 17 in Southeastern Colorado.
At the center of CRSHE’s vision is the belief that all children, youth and adults in rural communities should live healthy and meaningful lives. CRSHE strives to improve health and education outcomes by partnering with rural schools and communities and securing funding for projects that help meet these goals.
In 2019, CRSHE interviewed teachers about the changes they wanted the most, and they came back with a resounding answermore attention on their mental health. And then, the pandemic happened.
“Now, we’re really hearing about educator stress, burnout, fatigue, retraumatization by trying to support students who’ve been traumatized, triggering issues of their own trauma. They need a lot of support. It’s imperative that they get it. We’re facing such a workforce loss of teachers, and it’s really affecting the experience students are getting,” Belansky says.
The Center doesn’t tell partners what to do, Belansky says; instead, it offers a process that helps schools figure out next steps. Without the support of CRSHE, executing these initiatives would place an extra burden on schools that are already at their capacity.
“It’s something we’ve really learned over the years. In the absence of having a group like us providing the scaffolding, it’s not going to happen,” she says.
With the U.S. facing a shortage of teachers, rural schools have been pushed to their limits. Even before the pandemic, rural schools struggled with funding, meaning less staff and a greater sharing of responsibilities. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a principal teaching math class, driving the bus to athletic events and serving as the school’s athletic director.
“Schools are having to come up with a lot of creative strategies to have adults in the classroom,” Belansky says. “They can’t always comply with state rules about it because they simply can’t find the people.”
In fact, some schools have experimented with offering a 4-day week as a recruitment strategy for teachers.
Through recent grants, the Center’s been able to help implement around 2,000 changes across rural school districts. And with the Caring for Colorado Foundation’s grant focused on mental health, CRSHE’s goal for the 2022–23 academic year is to interview at least 100 kids.
“I think we want schools to be places that kids want to be,” says CRSHE’s associate director, Benjamin Ingman. “We want schools to make changes to promote mental health. …  Anecdotally, kids were talking about some of the instructional practices and how they were inequitable and how teachers weren’t being held to the same standards as students. Kids want to have the opportunity to engage with things they’re interested in.”
As leaders of CRSHE, Belansky and Ingman are conscious of their partners’ time as staff members wear multiple hats and sometimes even work other jobs. With every initiative, CRSHE works to minimize the burden, keeping things simple and digestible.
In Belansky’s years of working in the San Luis Valley, she’s seen plenty of changes big and small, from the addition of a Starbucks drive-thru to the increasing skill level of teachers. Belansky, who was once most comfortable in a major metropolitan area, finds solace and comfort in rural communities. And that monthly drive gives her time to reflect.
“I fell in love with the community down there, and I started to feel emotionally attached to the people and the challenges,” Belansky says. “And now, I feel like the work is very spiritual.”
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