Five nonprofits to split $5.9 million grant to address Arkansas’ high youth drug abuse, suicide rate

Jacqueline Sharp, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, explains how a new grant will help the foundation’s efforts toward suicide prevention during a news conference at the Clinton Center in Little Rock on Thursday.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Jacqueline Sharp, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, explains how a new grant will help the foundation’s efforts toward suicide prevention during a news conference at the Clinton Center in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)


Five nonprofit organizations have received a total of $5.9 million from the Blue & You Foundation to address the adolescent mental health crisis associated with trauma, substance use and suicide rates in Arkansas.

The foundation announced the grant recipients at the Clinton Presidential Center on Thursday morning.

"In Arkansas, children are exposed to potentially traumatic events at substantially higher rates than the national average," Rebecca Pittillo, executive director for the Blue & You Foundation, said.

Research shows that Arkansas has the third worst drug problem in the U.S. Almost 10% of Arkansas' sixth graders have used substances in the past 30 days and those rates increase as students make their way through high school, she said.

With the grant money, the recipients aim to raise the accessibility of treatment in the state, which does not have a practicing child or adolescent psychiatrist in 63 of its 75 counties, Pitillo said.

Dr. Laura Dunn and Dr. Nikki Edge were the first to be announced as grant recipients for their work at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Dunn said the grant money will help fund a virtual platform for their program, Pathways to Wellness Innovative Support for Youth and Family Mental Health.

"We like to think of it as an ultimate welcome center. ... Unlike things like a broken arm, you can't see mental health problems. I'm not wearing a sign that says 'I have an anxiety disorder' so we need to address the stigma," Dunn said.

Another program through UAMS, the Adolescent and Young Adult Addiction Treatment program, was also announced as a grant recipient.

Dr. Srinivasa Gokarakonda, a child psychiatrist in the hospital's department of psychiatry, will lead the program with Dr. Jason Williams, division chief for the child and adolescent psychiatry division at the hospital.

In his work, Gokarakonda has worked closely with young adults who are struggling with substance abuse, he said.

"In 2021 alone, we had about 100,000 deaths [nationally] from drug overdoses and we don't have a program that addresses these problems in the state for adolescents. So establishing this program to help us has been my dream for almost five years," Gokarakonda said.

Outside of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences programs announced, the grantees also included nonprofit organizations like Wolfe Street Foundation.

The Wolfe Street Foundation aids in recovery from addiction through community-oriented methods by hosting meetings and providing peer support.

"Folks, there are no problem children, there are children who are facing problems that are too big for their under-resourced families to handle alone," said Justin Buck, executive director of the Wolfe Street Foundation.

"When families reach out to the Wolfe Street Foundation looking for a place for their kids to get treatment for substance use disorder, the best place they could go was jail," Buck said.

The foundation will use the grant money to expand their services and partner with the hospitals to create accessible clinical treatment programs and an after-school program, Buck said.

"The power of what we do at the Wolfe Street Foundation is shared lived experience, which means we'll be working with peer recovery support specialists who have experienced addiction and recovery themselves and social work practicum students to put that program in place and let kids know that recovery is possible," he said.

The other two recipients announced to receive a portion of the grant money was Immerse Arkansas, an organization that focuses on the obstacles children in the foster care system face, and Arkansas branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"We serve about 400 young people in any given year, each who have experienced a high level of trauma, each with their own unique story and facing a unique challenge as they try and enter adulthood successfully," Eric Gilmore, executive director of Immerse Arkansas, said.

The organization's youth center provides meals and showers to the community and offers sessions with coaches, and with the grant award, they are planning on expanding these services, he said.

"We're thrilled to do that. This grant is going to allow us to hire four therapists that are recreational therapists that will work with these young people," Gilmore said.

My Ly is a Report for America Corps member.