ACE-ED Interview with Amy Porfiri, American Psychiatric Association (APA) Foundation

This interview with Amy Porfiri, Interim Executive Director of APA Foundation, was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Equity & Access. Enjoy!

What does the American Psychiatric Association Foundation do?

People see the profound impact of mental health on their lives, families, and communities. For over 28 years, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s community-based programs, fellowships, awards and grants, have worked to address critical mental health needs and develop resources where they are needed most.

All of our initiatives focus on one goal: A mentally healthy nation for all where you live, learn, work, and worship. We have been delivering our mental health professional development curriculum to school communities for over 10 years.

Why should Pre-K-12 educators be aware of what you are doing regarding educational equity and access?

Recently, the Foundation went through a complete evaluation and redevelopment of the Foundation’s school based mental health program to improve the effectiveness of the program and address the importance of cultural awareness. Twenty percent of school aged youth experience a mental health concern.

Sadly, we know it takes 8-10 years from experiencing the first signs of a mental health concern to making a connection to care. This lost opportunity to connect students to care is what the Notice. Talk. Act.™ at School key framework addresses. By training staff to Notice early warning signs that are disruptive or withdrawn, to Talk to the student to show that they care, gather information and determine an appropriate referral, and to Act to connect that student to support services when needed.

How does your program address a major inequity within the field of education?

An additional aspect of the redevelopment effort was to address the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Meaning that roughly 70% of students arrested or students referred to law enforcement are Black or Latinx, far over representing their prevalence in the general population. Likewise, students with disabilities represent 12% of the overall student enrollment and 28% of students referred to law enforcement or arrested. We are also seeing over representation from students who need additional support services.

When students display disruptive behaviors at school, it often means that there is turmoil in their lives. These behaviors can be caused by underlying issues that students are coping with. We want to train school personnel to see these “disruptive” behaviors as a sign for an empathetic and compassionate response, not punishment.

How do you approach partnerships with schools or school districts?

We assess and meet each school’s knowledge around mental health, its impacts, and the resources that they have available. That means working with each school in its district directly if necessary, because we know that even within a district, the support services and resources can vary between individual schools. The Notice. Talk. Act at School® delivery model can be tailored to each individual school whether it’s through direct delivery or a train-the-trainer model. The APA Foundation can also provide additional support to define the referral process and disseminate supplemental resources.

What do you think is the greatest challenge in education today?

We truly believe that mental health is one of the greatest challenges facing education today. With the alarming rates of youth suicide on the rise and the increase of individuals with serious mental illness landing in our local criminal justice system, we see an important opportunity to connect students with mental health needs to support sooner.

We aim to train community members to notice when youth are struggling, in any capacity, to better respond to concerning behaviors, and then connect students to support services. A greater challenge for communities is to increase access to these important support services as well, from mental health professionals, housing services, and family supports.

Just like mental health, these challenges should not be faced alone and we look forward to working with other organizations like the American Consortium of Equity in Education in improving support to students and communities.

Amy Porfiri joined the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Foundation in 2012. Her tenure began in 2000 as Director of Finance and Administration in the APA Division of Research and American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education, the former research subsidiary of APA. In this role, she provided support to the development of DSM-5 and research grant projects. As Deputy Director, Amy directs and oversees the financial, operations, governance, and compliance functions for the Foundation. She has advanced the initiatives and goals of the Foundation by managing major projects including the reestablishment of the Melvin Sabshin, MD Library & Archives in APA’s new headquarters and the Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership. Amy is currently serving as the Interim Executive Director of APA Foundation. Amy has an M.B.A. degree from University of Massachusetts and B.A. from Carleton College.

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The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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