FMCC nets $1.4M grant; Funding aimed at boosting the number of local mental health professionals

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By JASON SUBIK

The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN — Fulton-Montgomery Community College has been awarded a $1.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Health and Human Services Dept. to help increase the number of students receiving degrees and certificates in mental health fields, with a particular emphasis on substance abuse.

The stated goal of the funding is to enroll 25 additional students in the college’s mental health degree and certificate programs — a 67% increase from the approximately 37 students who typically enroll in them now — with a special emphasis on FMCC’s Chemical Abuse Counseling [A.A.S.] and Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) certificate programs.

“The program will expand and improve community partnerships to recruit a diverse workforce for collaborative, team-based, experiential training as CASACs, Certified Recovery Peer Advocates, and paraprofessionals in behavioral health,” said Daniel Fogarty, FMCC’s Student Outreach and Applied Learning Specialist.

Some of the other goals of the funding include: increasing the number of “experiential training sites” available to the college from 5 to 8, and expanding the number of student internship placements from 10 to 16 students annually.

“Program curricula will be modified to increase student knowledge of trauma informed care, the role of the family and lived experience of the consumer and family, and telehealth services in behavioral health,” reads FMCC’s grant application for the money.

The grant is broken up over a four-year period, with $513,761 coming to the college in the first year, with $213,000 of that money going towards the creation of the college’s first “telehealth simulation center” to help expand training for providing virtual mental health care services to rural areas. Some of the money will also pay for an “anatomy and physiology simulation table”, that will give students the opportunity to study what body parts really look like on actual human cadavers, via a virtual computer interface. The college will get $300,000 per year for the second, third and fourth years of the grant.

Jean Karutis, FMCC’s director of opportunity programs, wrote the grant application. She said the federal grant program is highly competitive and FMCC is one of only about 30 institutions of higher learning in the U.S. that were approved for the money. She said the key to getting the funding was the high level of poverty in the two counties and the “2018 Community Health Needs Assessment Report” compiled by St. Mary’s Healthcare for Fulton and Montgomery counties. The report surveyed 750 individuals age 18 and older in St. Mary’s Healthcare Service Area, including 363 in Fulton County and 387 in Montgomery County.

“It was basically just perfect timing, because St. Mary’s analysis was already done, and I was able to dive into the data and pull that out and [was] able to narrate what we needed to narrate [in the grant application] to be one of the few programs in the country that secured this funding,” she said.

The 2018 needs assessment report showed 71.1% of survey respondents ranked substance abuse as a major problem for the two counties, more than any other health-related issue, with the second highest major health problem being mental health at 60.3%.

For comparison, 41.4% of survey respondents ranked diabetes as a major problem and 35.2% considered cancer a major health problem.

Karutis said she wasn’t surprised by the statistical data in St. Mary’s 2018 report, because she has experienced first hand the devastating impact that untreated substance abuse can have locally.

“Wednesday was the 22nd anniversary of my brother’s death at the hands of a drunk driver,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been 22 years, but it was particularly heartfelt for me to write this [grant application] narrative because I do believe strongly that for people in our area it is hard for them to get these services, to find these services, and I do believe just throwing a person in prison or giving them jail time is not going to change the behavior. We need these paraprofessionals and mental health professionals to help people who are struggling.”

A lack of access to care and a “lack of providers” were among the reasons most often cited by the survey participants as a major part of why substance abuse and mental health continue to be big problems locally.

Another problem identified by the needs assessment report was a lack of bilingual care providers in the Amsterdam area. FMCC’s grant application states the school will attempt to increase the percentage of Latino students enrolled in its Human Service degree programs from 4.8% to 10%.

Karutis said at least 60% of the $1.4 million from the grant must go towards direct financial aid for students, with 40% for hiring staff, equipment and field trips.

“The goal is to create more of those [Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselors] in our area to fill the need, and to do that the grant provides substantial support to those students,” she said. “It will pay for their tuition. It will also give them a small stipend for them to be able to study. We find often that our students, just in general, struggle balancing family, work and school, so hopefully this grant will be able to alleviate some of that struggle.”

Karutis said the grant should be particularly useful to working adults looking for a career change, many of whom discover their current income levels prevent them from being eligible for very much, if any, federal student aid.

“The additional stipend will also be helpful in paying for child care for the amount of hours in school or an internship, which can be very pricey for people, particularly when they aren’t getting paid at a job,” she said. “I think, certainly post the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are rethinking what they want to do, and this could be an opportunity for those students attracted to this area of helping people.”

Karutis said next week she will be attending a “webinar” virtual training session where she will learn some of the specific aspects of what students will be eligible for the tuition assistance and stipend money from the funding, including information about whether students who have already previously earned a bachelor’s or associate degree can receive the assistance. She said people interested in becoming students in the college’s mental health and substance abuse-related degree and certificate programs and how to tap into the funding can call her at FMCC at 518-736-3622, Ext. 8904 for more details.

By Paul Wager