Appalachian State University professor and child clinical psychologist Kurt D. Michael, who has spent his career working to improve mental health services for young people in rural areas, has earned the James E. Holshouser, Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service from the UNC Board of Governors.

WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson

Dr. Michael accepted the award, which carries a $7,500 cash prize, during the board’s regular October meeting. Established in 2007 to encourage, identify, recognize and reward distinguished public service and outreach by faculty across the 17-campus University of North Carolina, the award was renamed last year in memory of the late Governor Holshouser, who served on the Board of Governors for more than three decades and set the gold standard for public service to the state and University. Winners must demonstrate sustained, distinguished and superb achievement in university public service and outreach and must contribute to improving the quality of life for North Carolina citizens.

“I’m very honored,” Dr. Michael said of the award. “I’m appreciative of the publicity, which I hope will shine a light on what the folks who work with me do every day to serve kids in need.”

A member of Appalachian State’s faculty since 1999, Dr. Michael founded the Assessment, Support and Counseling (ASC) Center at Watauga High School in 2006. The ASC expanded to Ashe County in 2011 and to Alleghany County in 2013. Last year, a team of 14 healthcare providers served 200-300 students across the three school districts.

In rural western North Carolina, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, family conflicts, aggression and suicidal thinking often go untreated because experienced mental healthcare providers can be scarce. Additionally, financial and transportation limitations — and fear of the stigma associated with mental health issues — often prevent students from seeking help. Dr. Michael’s groundbreaking initiative, which offers students mental healthcare at no cost to them or their families, has positively impacted the lives of numerous young people.

“It’s designed not only to treat mental health ailments, but to create a treatment plan that will enable students to succeed educationally,” Dr. Michael said. “If we can tie together academic success and social and emotional success, our schools become a one-stop shop.”

At the ASC Center, which operates full-time five days a week, students in need of mental health help receive the interdisciplinary support of university-affiliated licensed mental health providers, school counselors, social workers, student resource officers and local healthcare clinicians. In addition to receiving consultation and education regarding mental health issues, they can receive assessment and diagnosis, individual psychotherapy, family therapy, group therapy and crisis intervention.

In addition to serving youth with mental health issues regardless of their ability to pay,  the Center provides graduate students in Appalachian State’s marriage and family therapy, social work and school and clinical psychology programs practical experience before they graduate.  In the process, the Center is helping to train a competent mental health workforce for schools, disseminate research findings about best practices in school mental healthcare, promote interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle mental health challenges and augment the work high school teachers can do with the students in their classes.

The success of ASC has been documented in medical and mental health journals, including North Carolina Medical Journal, Children and Youth Services Review, Advances in School Mental Health Promotion and The Community Psychologist. Dr. Michael estimates that 65 to 70 percent of students treated through the Center for issues such as persistent suicidal thinking or self-injury make huge strides by the end of their treatment period. “We’re able to achieve results pretty quickly, and they’re pretty substantial in terms of psychological symptoms,” he said. After treatment, most students attend school more regularly, and their behavior and academic performance improves. “We’re really happy to see kids stabilize and not drop out,” Dr. Michael said. He and his colleagues have presented the ASC model at professional conferences across the United States and abroad.

Funding for ASC Center services comes from a combination of sources, including a grant from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction that runs through 2015, contributions from the county schools, and in-kind donations of time by Dr. Michael, other licensed professionals and Appalachian  graduate students. “We don’t have our children and families pay, so our program runs on a shoestring budget, and I’m constantly anxious that our funding streams will go away,” Dr. Michael said. “My hope is grant funders and constituents in the state will see the Center as a valuable service to the citizens of North Carolina and will enable us not only to continue, but expand.”

Dr. Michael teaches both graduate and undergraduate students in Appalachian State’s School Psychology and Clinical Psychology programs. He holds master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology from Utah State University and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he interned in child clinical and pediatric psychology at Duke University Medical Center. He is associate editor of the Journal of Child and Family Studies.