CSU researcher pursues passion for children’s mental health

Story by Kelsey Hussey

Melissa George hopes to shine a light on the often-neglected issue of promoting mental health for children and families.

Researcher Melissa George
Melissa George

“I realized there’s just such a huge gap in what we know and how we’re actually supporting the socio-emotional and mental health needs of children and families in the U.S.,” said George, a research scientist in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “I envision our education system having the resources needed to achieve its mission to prepare children to be healthy, successful, lifelong learners by creating healthier schools that provide an array of socio-emotional and mental health programs and practices.”

A research fellowship is helping George pursue her passion to increase the capacity of schools to support students and families’ mental health needs through focusing on comprehensive health and wellness efforts. She is one of 18 recipients of the Child Intervention, Prevention and Services (CHIPS) fellowship funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

George received her undergraduate degree in psychology and then earned her master’s and Ph.D. in developmental psychology, studying family and child development. After earning her doctorate, George’s postdoctoral experience focused on supporting schools to provide socio-emotional interventions and mental health services. This allowed her to advance her research in a way that directly impacted children and families in the real-world setting they interact with on a regular basis.

Prevention Research Center

George joined CSU’s Prevention Research Center in 2015, and, as associate director, has advanced the center’s mission to promote the development of health and well-being for individuals and families across the lifespan, through research, training and community outreach. The center, established in 2014 as a university-wide transdisciplinary center under the leadership of Professor Doug Coatsworth, focuses on helping schools and community agencies to develop, implement and test preventive interventions that support the youth and families they are working with.

George’s research and goals fit well with the Prevention Research Center’s mission to create collaborative partnerships between university and community stakeholders to build a healthier Colorado. Through assisting schools and communities to develop, select and introduce, or test a program or practice that fosters supportive relationships, healthy lifestyles, or introduces contemplative practices. For example, the center is helping to spread health and well-being initiatives across the state.

“CSU and the Prevention Research Center are fortunate to have Melissa working here,” Coatsworth said. “She is an extremely capable early career professional with creative ideas, and a passionate energy for this work. We were very happy to see her research recognized through this highly prestigious fellowship.”

CHIPS fellowship

The CHIPS fellowship is awarded to promising early career researchers who have the potential to obtain an NIMH grant focused on issues in child intervention and prevention. This summer, George attended a five-day intensive institute in Orlando, Florida, at the University of Central Florida, with other CHIPS fellowship recipients where she worked with mentors to refine her research proposal idea.

During the institute, the fellowship recipients received training from established researchers in the field who have been successful at receiving NIMH funding for their child intervention and prevention research. The institute enabled the recipients to build a strong peer network by learning about each other’s work and resources while also highlighting current funding opportunities and strategies for success with the National Institute of Mental Health.

Going into the institute, the topic of George’s proposed research project was to accelerate the translation of evidence-based prevention and intervention programs and services for child and adolescent mental health through creating healthier schools overall. After her experience in this training institute, she received helpful feedback about there being multiple entry points for intervention within her proposed ideas and that any of them would help to advance mental health efforts in schools.

“There isn’t one right path to take because there are a lot of different ways to have an impact on this issue,” said George. “It’s a matter of picking a path that feels right at that moment and going after it. For example, we know many parts of the system need more time, resources, and skills to do this work, so where do we start first?”

Research in action

The goal of George’s research is to continue to improve access to evidence-based programs and practices that support child and family mental health and well-being. Since the institute, George has continued working on her grant application that focuses on an intervention for district wellness specialists to support positive mental health in schools.

“It’s extremely important to study the best ways to prepare districts with the resources they need to support schools,” said George.

By partnering with families and communities, George hopes schools and districts will have what they need to select and implement effective programs that address mental health.

The end goal of this research is to integrate these efforts into a comprehensive health and wellness approach to creating healthier schools, that is, approaches that focus on multiple factors such as improving student and staff physical activity, nutrition and overall wellness.

The data will lead to learning what interventions are needed to equip these school communities to advance their school mental health promotion efforts as part of creating healthier schools environments.

“Making sure what we’re doing is wanted and valued by the schools is a high priority. It’s my mission to make sure our work is practical and sustainable for these school communities,” said George.

With a whole year to reap the benefits of the CHIPS fellowship, George will continue to find ways to reduce the gap in mental health awareness around the U.S. She hopes to continue advancing research in socio-emotional health to ensure children and families receive supports that promote wellbeing in their communities and schools for not only the short-term, but the long-term as well.

“We often get into a habit of doing our work day to day without really thinking about the impact we’re having,” said George. “This fellowship provided an opportunity for me to reflect on the importance of the work we’re doing to create healthier schools and reminded me that we’re having a significant impact in the lives of children and families.”

The Prevention Research Center is in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.