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Marisa Marraccini receives APA’s 2022 Lightner Witmer Award

Award recognizes early-career excellence in school psychology

Marisa Marraccini, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2022 Lightner Witmer Award, an honor bestowed by the American Psychological Association to recognize early-career achievement in the field of school psychology.

The APA’s Division of School Psychology (Division 16) presents the award annually to a young professional or academic school psychologist who demonstrates scholarship worthy of special recognition.

“Dr. Marraccini has made, and continues to make, significant and important contributions in the field of school psychology — contributions that directly help young people and educators,” said Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, dean and professor at the UNC School of Education. “We are thrilled to learn that she is receiving this prestigious award.”

Marraccini, an assistant professor, joined the UNC School of Education in 2017. She leads research that aims to promote child and adolescent mental health in the context of their school settings. Her research is focused on supporting vulnerable populations, especially adolescents struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and improving access to mental health supports across hospital and school settings.

Marraccini said she was humbled and excited by the award.

“The list of individuals who have received this award over the years are individuals that I’ve been reading about, and citing, and aspiring towards as a school psychology researcher,” Marraccini said. “To be considered among them is a huge honor.”

The award will be presented to Marraccini at the APA’s annual convention in August. Chunyan Yang, an assistant professor of school psychology at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Education, will also receive the award.

Seeking to reduce suicide risk among adolescents

Marraccini pursues a research and practice agenda aimed at reducing suicide risk among adolescents, the second leading cause of death among school-aged youth in the United States.

Among her work, she has studied re-integration of adolescents into school environments following psychiatric hospitalization — a period during which they are at extremely high risk for making a suicide attempt. Nearly one-third are re-hospitalized with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Marraccini has studied the practices of high schools across the country to help youth being re-integrated into school and has developed protocols for making those transitions successful.

Marraccini said receiving the Lightner Witmer Award was among the indications that work to help adolescents re-integrate into school after a psychiatric hospitalization was receiving greater attention among school psychologists and researchers.

“We have a lot more work to do,” she said. “We’ve planted seeds with this work over the past five to seven years. I feel like this is a mark that shows that the work is getting more attention and that we will continue to make more progress in this important work.”

Marraccini said that during the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a widening awareness of the psychological and emotional needs of children and adolescents, especially for services and interventions aimed at preventing psychological and emotional crises.

“We clearly need to focus on prevention,” she said. “But we can’t lose sight of the importance of supporting kids during and following a crisis. We need to consider mental health and well-being of our students holistically, making sure that researchers in the field of school psychology are thinking about the entire spectrum of prevention, intervention, and recovery – and that these efforts are inclusive to the diverse backgrounds and identities of students facing mental health concerns.”

In 2020, Marraccini won a $625,000 career development grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop and conduct initial testing of a virtual reality intervention to supplement treatment provided to adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The virtual reality program will be used in sessions in which students learn cognitive behavioral therapy skills, practicing how to monitor their reactions to difficult situations and to apply skills to handle them.

Marraccini also was recently awarded a fellowship with the Implementation Research Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. The fellowship provides two years of training in mental health implementation science, instruction that Marraccini intends to use in the optimization trial of her NIMH-funded mixed-reality intervention project.