August 17, 2020
(HOUSTON, TX) - The University of Houston's Division of Research recently announced its 2020 High Priority Area Research Seed Grant recipients. Among those named to receive an award of $61,574 to further the study of youth aging out of the foster care system was Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development Sarah Narendorf.
Designed with the intention of "invigorating research labs and groups with funds that would permit the submission of competitive research proposals," High Priority Research Seed Grant applicants' research must fall within one of the four categories: physical and cybersecurity, drug discovery and development, sustainable communities and infrastructure, or healthcare accessibility.
To mark the news of the award, we asked Dr. Narendorf to share more about the significance of this grant and why it is imperative to understand the mental health decisions of those who have been in the foster care system.
Name: Dr. Sarah Narendorf
Preferred Pronouns: she/her/hers
Title: Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development
Congratulations on the UH High Priority Research Seed Grant! What will this grant allow you to do that you wouldn't have been able to do before?
The SEED grant will allow us to gain preliminary data to understand how youth exiting foster care make decisions about managing their mental health. We know that youth have high rates of mental health diagnoses and treatment when they are in foster care, but many discontinue formal services immediately after exiting foster care. Our study seeks to better understand how youth are managing mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety. We are trying to understand strategies like using drugs or talking with peers or family that may be chosen instead of mental health treatment. And, we are trying to understand how the views of people in a youth's social network influence their choices for managing mental health. This pilot data will help us develop interventions that support young people in managing mental health symptoms in ways that make sense for them and help us understand how to involve significant social support best. These internal funds will give us the preliminary data we need to prepare a more substantial application to the National Institute of Mental Health.
For those that might not be knowledgeable, what is the definition of the term "aging out"?
Young people "age out" of the foster care system when they are in foster care and turn 18. In Texas, young people have the option to stay in "extended care" to get extra support until they become 21. Our study focuses on young people ages 18-22, both those who choose to remain in extended care and those who have decided to exit foster care.
What are some of the challenges you have observed or experienced in studying youth populations aging out of foster care?
This is a challenging time to study young adults since COVID-19 makes it harder to connect with young people that can be hard to find. Many youths that exit the foster care system end up in unstable housing situations, so it can be challenging to connect with them.
What do you believe are some of the large-scale and small-scale benefits of studying social networks and mental health decisions of youth at The HAY Center?
On a small scale, we hope that the data collected will be helpful for our partners, the Houston Alumni Youth Center, the agency in our area that provides support for youth as they age out of foster care. We aim to provide them with the data collected; that way, they have a clearer picture of the social networking of the youth with whom they regularly interact. People that come from the HAY Center, such as mentors and case managers, will likely be a part of a youth's social network. With our research, we can better understand how case managers can play a supportive role when youth experience mental health problems. On a larger scale, we plan to develop interventions that can be used with youth exiting foster care across the country to help them get connected with the support they need to be mentally healthy.
How do you believe your studying of social networks and mental health decisions of homeless youth connects with the GCSW's mission of achieving social justice?
Young people that age out of the foster care system have often experienced marginalization in multiple ways that disadvantage them as they seek to thrive in adulthood. Our work aims to understand approaches that can build health for this group and recognize the critical role of social networks in mental wellness. We explicitly acknowledge that racism and racial trauma impact mental health. We also know that we need to consider these aspects as we listen to young people in our research and partner with them to develop interventions that seek to empower and support young people. This funding supports our research team in including a young person with lived experience of the foster care system who will be integral to our efforts to understand mental health decision making in this group.