Newswise — Karissa Bjorkgren, a second-year student in the Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration programs at West Virginia University, is dedicated to addressing mental health in rural communities.

A native of Franklin, West Virginia, Bjorkgren has experienced first-hand how infrequently rural communities in West Virginia address mental health concerns. She hopes her research will help overcome this disparity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, and suicide rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016.   

“Rates of suicide continue to climb, and this has become a factor in the first-time decline in the average life expectancy of Americans,” Bjorkgren said. “This research allows us to change the outlook of mental health and the integrated services provided throughout our state and help us move in a positive direction, both as a research university and as a community.”

Bjorkgren is working with Mary LeCloux, an assistant professor and director of the Master of Social Work program in the School of Social Work, on a study evaluating the feasibility and effectiveness of a universal suicide risk screening tool, the Ask Suicide Screening Questions Toolkit, in two adult primary care practices in West Virginia.

The toolkit includes a brief suicide risk screening tool and a follow-up guide for risk assessment and was developed by Lisa Horowitz and her team at the National Institutes of Mental Health. This study is currently funded by a pilot grant from the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“Our hope is that by implementing a universal screening tool within a standard physician office visit, we can increase the rates of suicide reporting within individuals residing in rural areas,” Bjorkgren said.

Bjorkgren’s combined background in social work and public administration gives her the knowledge of the intersection between social services and policy change at an administrative level. She believes that this perspective will put her a step ahead as she begins her career.

“I personally like to think of the dual degree as a combination of two competitors, the heart and the brain. When faced with a difficult social dilemma, a social worker feels compelled to do anything they can to help the individual, often at a personal sacrifice,” Bjorkgren said. “A public administrator, however, is trained to analyze the details of the situation, look at the numbers and create the most organized and fair solution.”

During her academic career at WVU, Bjorkgren has served as a graduate teaching assistant, held an internship with United Way and served as the president of the Student Association of Public Administrators.

In the future, Bjorkgren hopes to utilize her management and service skills to assist in nonprofit management on a global scale.

"In all of my interactions with Karissa, she has demonstrated a high level of dedication and excels in all of her many educational endeavors. She is a highly intelligent and engaging individual who will be a definite asset to the social service sector in the future,” LeCloux said. “She is one of the best students I had the opportunity to work with, and it has been a genuine pleasure to serve as her adviser, research mentor and instructor in the School of Social Work.”