Brenda Marshall, a William Paterson University nursing professor, received a grant that will provide selected participants with free Mental Health First Aid certificate training. The program will also mentor underrepresented minority students at local high schools by encouraging them to pursue STEM careers.

Marshall, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and certified trainer in both youth and mental health first aid, is working with Dr. Peju Simoyan, MD, who will be conducting the same outreach in Reading, PA. They are co-recipients of the grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund.

“Underserved communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and the pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health problems,” says Marshall. “Individuals living below the poverty level are nearly 2.5 times more likely to have depression than those at or above the poverty level. That is why there is an urgent need to educate teenagers about mental health problems and provide them with skills to address these concerns in their schools and communities, thereby building community resilience.”

The pilot program will give 20 New Jersey students and 10 New Jersey teachers certified training in Mental Health First Aid, acquiring skills that can be used in their communities.

“I have spent 20 years of my life making sure that people have access to mental health resources and since COVID-19, there is a desperate need for mental health training in our communities, at school, and in our homes,” adds Marshall.

The grant will also provide mentorship training to high school students in all grades interested in health careers. “Students may not realize that even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can still go to college to become a doctor, a nurse, a public health official, a dentist, or a veterinarian,” says Marshall.

Up to 200 high school students will be able to attend virtual informational sessions by health professionals that will provide them with useful information as they navigate career choices in the STEM field.

Marshall is planning to work with local Paterson and Wayne, New Jersey high school districts and provide oversight to the project activities.