Psychology Professor Awarded Prestigious Grant to Provide Services for Children Affected by Trauma

Elissa Brown headshot
October 20, 2021

Elissa Brown, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology, and Executive Director, Child HELP (Heal, Empower, Learn, Prevent) Partnership at St. John’s University, was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  

The Child HELP Partnership Treatment and Services Adaptation Center will train schools and mental health clinics across the country to deliver evidence-based, culturally adapted trauma services and interventions for children exposed to disaster, sexual abuse, family violence, race-based and immigration trauma, COVID-19, and traumatic deaths. 

“After decades of research that tells us what works for trauma-related mental health problems, our mission is to get those best practices to the children who need them the most,” said Dr. Brown. “The Child HELP Partnership team is dedicated to accomplishing this locally and nationally.” 

According to Dr. Brown, nearly two-thirds of children in the US experience trauma prior to age 18, with COVID-19 escalating these numbers, particularly for low-income families of color. Despite the need, fewer than 20 percent of traumatized children receive evidence-based interventions. 

“Few parents are knowledgeable about the mental health consequences of trauma and available evidence-based interventions (EBIs),” explained Dr. Brown. “There is a lack of training for school and mental health staffs on early intervention, mental health promotion, and prevention of long-term consequences of trauma. The grant allows us to provide this training.” 

The goals of the center—which will include 18 sites nationwide—are to increase collaboration in local, state, and national school-family-mental health partnerships; increase the size of the trauma-trained workforce; increase the number of children who receive trauma-specific services and EBIs; and decrease children’s posttraumatic stress disorder and other trauma symptoms.

Included in the project are three St. John’s University psychology professors: Andrea Bergman, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Marlene Sotelo-Dynega ’07Psy.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; and Imad Zaheer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology. 

As Dr. Sotelo-Dynega, an expert in school psychology, explained, “Schools have the potential to support and enable children to overcome many adversities, but many are not well-equipped to do so. This grant enables schools to help so many of our nation’s children and their families.”

“This grant provides a unique and exciting opportunity to address children’s trauma-focused mental health concerns across systems of care offered in schools, homes, and community settings,” said Dr. Zaheer, an expert in school-family-mental health partnerships. “Research in child mental health has long promoted this type of cross-system and multidisciplinary work, but rarely have we been able to put it into action.”

The $3 million award is part of SAMHSA’s more than $62 million in grants that focus on combating child trauma. 

“The need for trauma care for children is vast and growing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial violence in today’s society,” explained Gina M. Florio, Ph.D., Interim Dean, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics. “This project will make vital contributions toward understanding and improving the lives of children, their caregivers, and their communities and generate new interventions and support structures.”  

“It is a privilege to have a role in a project that will provide access to effective trauma-informed care for underserved communities throughout the country,” said Dr. Bergman, an expert in adolescent mental health and interventions. “Our work is an embodiment of the Vincentian mission.”

Dr. Brown is the 2020 winner of the Mark Chaffin Outstanding Research Career Achievement Award, which recognizes a member of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children who has made repeated, significant, and outstanding contributions to research on child maltreatment over their career.