School of Medicine Professors Dr. Jacob Warren, Dr. Bryant Smalley Receive Grant to Create COVID-19 Mental Health Response Guidance

Center for Rural Health

MACON – Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) faculty members Dr. Jacob Warren and Dr. Bryant Smalley recently received a $20,000 grant from the Commonwealth Fund to create guidance on ensuring COVID-19 efforts are responsive to both the ongoing mental health needs of residents and the unique mental health needs that emerge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coordinated by MUSM’s Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities, the grant will fund the creation of a series of guidance pieces drawing upon existing best practices as well as highlighting innovative strategies being employed by states during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rapid response pieces will be led by Dr. Smalley, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate dean for research, and Dr. Warren, Rufus Harris Endowed Chair and director of the Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center of Excellence within MUSM.

“There is increasing evidence that COVID-19 is leading to a spike in mental health and substance use concerns,” said Dr. Smalley. “Not only are individuals facing the stress of living during and adjusting to a pandemic – including a level of social distancing unprecedented in modern times – but other stressors such as job loss and loss of access to services are also magnified.”

The pieces will focus on the ways in which telemental health can be used to support mental and behavioral health, how states can implement policies and other measures to protect mental and behavioral health, and what the anticipated impact of COVID-19 will be on mental health status throughout the country. Recommendations for state legislators and other leaders will be provided to help ensure response efforts are inclusive of mental and behavioral health needs.

“We may be in uncharted waters as a result of the pandemic, but there are still concrete steps that can be taken to protect the public’s mental health in addition to our physical health,” said Dr. Warren. “Our hope is that this project will help policymakers make informed decisions about supporting mental and behavioral health during this public health crisis.”

The Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities, an NIH Center of Excellence, is housed within the School of Medicine and is dedicated to implementing community-driven solutions to health disparity issues in rural areas of Georgia. Its mission is twofold: to partner with rural communities to engage in interdisciplinary research, training and community outreach designed to generate novel, community-driven methods for eliminating health disparities; and to provide data-driven policy recommendations to improve rural health issues. The Center operates a $6 million federal portfolio focused on maternal and infant mortality reduction, opioid overdose prevention and chronic disease self-management.

About Mercer University School of Medicine (Macon, Savannah and Columbus)

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60 percent of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80 percent are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia. Mercer medical students benefit from a problem-based medical education program that provides early patient care experiences. Such an academic environment fosters the early development of clinical problem-solving and instills in each student an awareness of the place of the basic medical sciences in medical practice. The School opened a full four-year campus in Savannah in 2008 at Memorial University Medical Center. In 2012, the School began offering clinical education for third- and fourth-year medical students in Columbus. Following their second year, students participate in core clinical clerkships at the School’s primary teaching hospitals: Medical Center, Navicent Health in Macon; Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. The School also offers master’s degrees in family therapy, preclinical sciences and biomedical sciences and a Ph.D. in rural health sciences.