By Katie Zakrzewski | Photography by Jamison Mosley
During the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral health concerns surged to the forefront of American society, and Arkansas is no exception. Fortunately, experts like Dr. Nikki Edge at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are leading the charge in helping Arkansans through their behavioral health concerns. Dr. Edge is a professor in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at UAMS. One of her many successful programs includes Project PLAY, a behavioral health program for children that Dr. Edge has worked on for more than 15 years.
“I’ve worked at UAMS since I was a graduate student more than 25 years ago,” Dr. Edge shares. “I’ve literally grown up at UAMS, and my colleagues are a second family for me. I love being surrounded by smart, mission-driven colleagues who care about one another and who are really passionate about improving the lives of children and families in Arkansas.”
New Behavioral Health Initiatives
UAMS recently launched a new program titled the Arkansas Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools. With the support of a grant from the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, the TRIS team at UAMS provides training, resources and support to K-12 schools in Arkansas.
“Our goal is to help school personnel recognize and respond to the impact of trauma on students,” Dr. Edge underscores. “Through our training initiatives, we work to build basic knowledge about trauma among school staff. We train teachers and other school staff about the impact of trauma on health and development, signs and symptoms of traumatic stress, steps they can take to build resilience in children and help them be successful in school.”
The first year of TRIS was a success, with more than 2,300 teachers in Arkansas trained to recognize and respond to trauma in students. The TRIS program also serves to support school teams after traumatic events impacting the community such as natural disasters, the loss of a teacher or student, or violence in the school community.
“We are able to pair our trauma experts with counselors and administrators to help them navigate these crises in ways that will minimize the negative impact on students and staff,” Dr. Edge says.
The Importance of Partnerships
Dr. Edge shares that partnerships across the state have helped bring many parts of her behavioral health programs and initiatives to life. Partnerships with Arkansas State University and funding and collaboration from the Arkansas Department of Human Services have helped make UAMS’s work on early learning environments a reality. Additionally, UAMS’s successful launch of the TRIS program was possible thanks to close partnerships with the Arkansas Department of Education and other key stakeholders in the education community.
“We also work closely with the UAMS AR ConnectNow team to help students access mental health treatment services,” Dr. Edge goes on to explain. “TRIS would not have been possible without the funding partnership of the Blue & You Foundation. The Blue & You team understands the behavioral health needs in our state and has made critical investments to help move the needle to create a healthier state. They believed we could make a difference in our schools, and we are so grateful for their support.”
Timing is Key
Mental health challenges have always faced Arkansas communities, but the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the cracks of mental health inadequacies and struggles. The increased sense of urgency in the behavioral health community has forced the spotlight on those individuals and communities who need behavioral health assistance the most.
“For some children and families, the pandemic added new adversities on top of preexisting trauma. For others, the crisis brought new experiences of grief, loss, isolation and financial hardship. We are seeing the impact on mental health. For example, studies are showing increased rates of anxiety and depression among school age children. Many schools are reporting difficulties meeting the mental health needs of students and are experiencing increases in behavioral concerns. This is a very stressful time for teachers and parents as well as students,” Dr. Edge emphasizes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stern reminder that a wide range of mental health resources are needed for children and families and that all of us have a role to play in supporting the mental health of our communities. Programs like Project PLAY and TRIS are leading the charge.
“We also want to be able to assist children and families in accessing mental health services when they need them. We know mental health treatment works, and so part of the role of TRIS is to support children and families in accessing proven effective trauma treatment services.”
When it comes to behavioral health, children are the most impressionable in society. We need to ensure that children have the mental health capabilities needed to grow into adulthood; it truly takes a village. “Parents, teachers and other important adults in children’s lives help lay the foundation for positive mental health when they provide children with consistent, safe and nurturing relationships. We can teach children healthy social and emotional skills that will serve them well lifelong,” Dr. Edge reinforces. “All of us can work to normalize the conversation around emotions and mental health and be aware of signs and symptoms that children may need more support.”