TRAILS school mental health program enters new chapter
On June 30, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan state legislature demonstrated a continued commitment to youth mental health by including $50 million for TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) in the budget for fiscal year 2023. That budget has now been signed into law. This appropriation will allow for an expansion of state-funded work started last year, which enabled TRAILS to partner with a subset of schools in 50 of Michigan’s 56 intermediate school districts.
TRAILS, which was founded at U-M, equips schools with the training, materials and implementation support they need to offer research-driven prevention and early intervention mental health programming to their students. For the approximately 40% of school-aged youth who report frequent feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, depression or anxiety, and may not have ready access to other mental health supports, this school-based programming can be a life-changing and life-saving resource.
“This investment in our children by Gov. Whitmer and our state legislature positions Michigan as a true leader in the creation of systems-level solutions to address the youth mental health crisis,” said Elizabeth Koschmann, Ph.D., the clinical psychologist who is the founder and executive director of TRAILS. “We hear daily from school staff who are deeply concerned about the well-being of their students, and this funding will allow us to help more schools offer the support students need. Our team is eager to broaden our reach, especially among schools whose students face the most significant barriers to accessing care.”
The budget announcement comes on the heels of a major change for TRAILS: In May, the organization transitioned from a research program at the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan Medicine. It is now a project of Tides Center, an independent 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor. This change, which had been in the works for more than a year, involved numerous teams both inside and outside of U-M working collaboratively to help TRAILS chart a new course — one that will allow the program to keep pace with an unprecedented demand for school mental health services.
“Our origins at U-M provided an incredible opportunity to work alongside nationally-renowned education and health researchers, and to build a program grounded in evidence-based practices,” Koschmann said. “That early work was instrumental, and today we hear from school leaders statewide that TRAILS is pivotal to their ability to support students. Our transition to Tides Center will enable us to accelerate our growth and be more nimble in responding to the changing needs of our school partners.”
This acceleration is already under way. Examples include:
- When TRAILS launched in 2013, it served just two Ann Arbor schools. Today, TRAILS programming is delivered in more than 700 schools in Michigan and beyond.
- TRAILS programs are continually expanding to meet partner requests. Offerings now span three tiers of support: universal education and awareness for all students, early intervention for students impacted by a mental health concern, and crisis intervention for students experiencing suicidality.
- TRAILS is training more school staff than ever. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance at TRAILS trainings has increased 1,000%.
- The TRAILS website is currently undergoing a rebuild to streamline material access. TRAILStoWellness.org is visited daily by school mental health professionals spanning every county in Michigan, and TRAILS resources are downloaded an average of 2,500 times per day.
“The growth TRAILS has experienced, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, has been incredible,” said Gregory Dalack, M.D., chair of Michigan Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. “We are proud to have had so many faculty and staff involved in helping to build a strong foundation for TRAILS through mentorship, research expertise, and facilitation of funding, and we are looking forward to our continued collaboration as TRAILS begins this exciting new chapter.”
Over the next several months, TRAILS will undertake a number of organizational changes, including the formation of an advisory board and the recruitment of several key leadership positions to oversee the following teams: operations, implementation, clinical science, strategic partnerships, finance, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Andrea Cole, executive director of the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, will serve as board chair. Also joining the board will be Becky Cienki, director of Behavioral Health at the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Daphne Watkins, Ph.D., U-M Diversity and Social Transformation professor and director of the Curtis Research Center, and Joan Evans, director of the Prosper Road Foundation. Additional board members will be added in the months to come.
In addition to the expansion opportunities made possible by this historic state investment, TRAILS aims to strengthen its partnerships with the Michigan Department of Education and allied programs across the state, and design and test innovations to maximize program efficiency. TRAILS will continue to maintain a strong relationship with U-M, particularly with the Youth Policy Lab at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy, to engage in collaborative program evaluation and research.
Koschmann said: “We are tremendously grateful to be included in the state’s budget, and for the support from U-M, our funders, and our partners that has fostered our growth. It is because of the commitment and dedication of all involved that we are able to continue this journey toward making effective mental health services accessible in all schools.”