School of Social Work Receives $4 Million Award in Partnership With Counseling and Guidance Center

Johanna Thomas, associate professor in the School of Social Work, and Shaun Thomas, associate professor of Sociology and Criminology.
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Johanna Thomas, associate professor in the School of Social Work, and Shaun Thomas, associate professor of Sociology and Criminology.

The School of Social Work and the Department of Sociology and Criminology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences have joined forces with Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center, a private non-profit community health center which has provided services for 48 years to western Arkansas, to implement health improvements in rural communities.

The original start date of the grant was set for Oct. 1. With the outbreak of coronavirus, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) took action to get these services underway as soon as possible. The grant was funded under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and given a new start date of May 1, 2020.

Johanna Thomas, associate professor in the School of Social Work and a licensed social worker in the State of Arkansas, in partnership with Shaun Thomas, associate professor in Sociology and Criminology, are spearheading the initiative with Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center.

“We have been working hard with them (WACGC) to expand their behavioral health treatment services to people who are not insured, underinsured, who are justice system involved or who have extreme transportation issues,” Thomas said. “They have a 25% cancellation rate for people in their outbound rural communities because it is so hard to secure transportation to their nearest facility.”

The researchers, practitioners and clinicians will use the grant to implement new health and mental health services and evaluate the new programming in the region. The School of Social Work will also provide regular training in evidence-based mental health practices for 300 mental health professionals. The catchment area includes the six most western Arkansas counties: Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Polk, Scott and Sebastian. These counties are both medically underserved and have health professional shortages. Most of the geographic area is rural, with the urbanization concentrated in Fort Smith, Arkansas’ second largest city.

“The expansion grant funds the Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center to become a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic to advance primary-behavioral health integration and use evidence-based practices to increase services to 2,000 new children and adults in six Arkansas counties with mental and/or behavioral health disorders, including opioid disorders,” Thomas said.  

The Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center has a long history of serving and treating populations with mental illnesses, substance use disorders, serious emotional disturbances and co-occurring disorders. The center also has provided services for other complex issues such as trauma, foster care, domestic violence and LGBTQ and Veteran status. Because of the primarily rural population served, and the sheer size of the service area, the center has established a system of county clinics with telemedicine capabilities.

“While the concerns haven’t changed tremendously, we know that the people in these six counties need more health and mental health access and care now more than ever as we learn to adapt to this global crisis and the resulting economic and mental health ramifications,” Thomas said.

The expanded clinic will increase treatment quality and capacity to the targeted population by:

  • physical enhancement of the Fort Smith campus.
  • implementation of on-site integrative care at Fort Smith campus.
  • integrative care training for Fort Smith personnel.
  • monthly evidence-based practices and continuing education for all personnel.
  • the creation and deployment of mental health treatment to the service area via the Mobile Mental Health Unit.
  • deployment of mental health specialists to outposts in the service.
  • provide community care for persons at risk or justice involved who are in a cycle of jail, crisis and treatment.
  • provide needed services in juvenile detention centers.

The grant will serve the following individuals in the service area:

  • Children with serious emotional disturbance.
  • Individuals of all ages at risk for serious mental illness and substance use disorders, including opioid disorders.
  • Individuals of all ages with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

“Given recent closures of behavioral health agencies in Arkansas due to a challenging financial environment and cuts, three in their direct service area, WACGC will be able to provide much needed services to individuals who would otherwise be compromised and possibly go without them,” Thomas said.

The six counties benefiting from this award are designated Medically Underserved Areas and Health Professional Shortage Areas by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in the primary health and behavioral health domain.  

More information about the Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center can be found on their website.


Sarah Brown, communications assistant
Office of Research and Innovation


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