(Pictured above, left to right, are Joan Anderson with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Loren Nix with Global Partnership for Telehealth, Christie Cook with Ben Hill Elementary School, Brad Wells with Global Partnership for Telehealth, Jahyna Anderson with Ben Hill Elementary School and Wanda Kimbrell with Ben Hill County School System.)

MACON – The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, in partnership with the Ben Hill County Board of Education, Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement and Global Partnership for Telehealth, on Oct. 27 provided the first virtual counseling session for Ben Hill Elementary School students through the new Pediatric Mental Health Initiative.

The initiative delivers virtual counseling services to students and their families and provides mental health screening tools and suicide prevention training to educators, community members and students. The collaborative efforts of these organizations designed the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative to address a key issue in Ben Hill County where there are currently no licensed mental health providers.

The Ben Hill County School System, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, recognized a significant gap in community resources and the strain on students’ mental health. When approached by the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to explore a partnership offering virtual counseling to alleviate these issues, system leaders felt this would be an invaluable resource to their students.

“I truly know in my heart that this is going to be life-changing event in the life of this child and a stepping stone in helping more and more students in Ben Hill County,” said Wanda Kimbrell, special education and pupil services director of Ben Hill County School System, after witnessing the first telehealth counseling session. “To be part of such a meaningful project is a blessing, and one that I am highly thankful for and so happy to be a part of. The entire team worked so hard to make this a reality, and we finally saw the fruits of that work. I have found myself looking ahead to when the next sessions will occur and we set more students on the path to mental health wellness.”

The counseling sessions are conducted by graduate students under the direct supervision of licensed clinical professionals in the College of Professional Advancement with technical support from Global Partnership for Telehealth. The sessions greatly benefit the graduate students, as well, as the initiative provides meaningful practicum and internship experiences for these clinicians by allowing faculty and students to work with underserved populations in rural Georgia and gain experience in telehealth.

“I have watched with great interest and admiration as the rural health initiative has moved forward to improve access to medical care for the underserved in our state. Our dream has been to find some way to increase access to outstanding mental health care for this same population,” said Priscilla Danheiser, Ph.D., dean of the College of Professional Advancement. “Our pilot program is the first step in realizing that dream and such a wonderful opportunity for Mercer’s extraordinary graduate students in clinical mental health counseling, school counseling and clinical rehabilitation counseling. We are proud of this collaborative work with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center.”

“The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center is committed to developing sustainable solutions that improve access and quality health care in rural, underserved counties across Georgia,” added Jean Sumner, M.D., dean of Mercer University School of Medicine. “This is an excellent example of what can be accomplished with community involvement and partnership from the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center.”

Ben Hill Elementary School is currently piloting the program with plans for full implementation in four Ben Hill County schools in the spring of 2022.

The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Mercer’s College of Professional Advancement and Global Partnership for Telehealth are interested in working with other communities with mental health service disparities to replicate this program. Inquiries about the Pediatric Mental Health Initiative can be made to the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center by calling (478) 301-4700.

About the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center

In 2018, Georgia lawmakers dedicated special funds to establish a new Rural Health Innovation Center tasked with confronting the complex health care challenges and wellness disparities facing rural communities. Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) was awarded the grant funds in 2019 and formally established the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center on its Macon campus. MUSM boasts a longstanding commitment to serving rural Georgia’s health needs, with a mission to educate physicians dedicated to tackling the health challenges in rural Georgia. The Rural Health Innovation Center serves as a critical resource to rural communities to improve access and effectiveness of health care by offering research, collaboration and training opportunities.

About the College of Professional Advancement

Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement is committed to serving post-traditional learners. Undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs are offered to adult learners seeking professional advancement into leadership roles in and beyond their communities. Programs provide students with distinctive, multidisciplinary experiences that integrate theory and practice. In addition to providing general education and elective courses for various colleges and schools at Mercer, the College of Professional Advancement offers degree programs in areas including technology, public safety, public and human services, leadership and administration, health care and liberal arts. Programs are offered on Mercer’s campuses in Atlanta and Macon, as well as Regional Academic Centers in Douglas County and Henry County, and online. To learn more, visit professionaladvancement.mercer.edu.

Morgan is the director of communications and events for the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center. She is responsible for the Center’s event planning and communication strategy as well as managing its print and digital marketing needs, including the website and social media.