By Amy Kennedy, education director of The Kennedy Forum
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth universal changes for all. We’ve born witness like never before to the cracks in our system and the ground that needs to be covered to account for what we lack. One of these fractures has markedly been mental health support in schools, and the methods states engage to recruit the workforce necessary to address the youth mental health crisis.
To that end, near the close of 2021, California’s Department of Education announced it would seek to bring on 10,000 mental health counselors to public schools. Through financial incentives to pursue degrees in the field and a cutback on credentialing timelines, state leaders are hoping to encourage more individuals to work in school-based mental health spaces. On the topic of the initiative, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond stated, “I can’t think of anything more important right now in terms of dealing with the trauma that students and families have experienced. But the reality is that there is a shortage, there just aren’t enough counselors.”
The superintendent’s sentiment is true in Michigan especially, where Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a budget bill last summer devised to address the same issue. The FY2022 budget allocates funds, for school districts that apply, to hire hundreds of nurses, social workers, and counselors across school campuses statewide. The budget aims to combat Michigan’s current student-to-counselor ratio, which is the second worst in the country at an appalling 671 to 1. In comparison with the other 49 states, Vermont has the best ratio at 201 to 1, exceeding the American School Counselor’s recommendation of 250 to 1.
In New York, Senators Jackson and Gonzalez-Rojas recently sponsored legislation that ensures every single school in the state has both a full-time licensed social worker and a full-time licensed psychologist on staff—emphasizing the need for lower income communities to have the same opportunity for students to achieve success as higher income communities.
Even states that have yet to introduce legislation addressing mental health staffing shortages, like Utah, are calling attention to insufficient clinician to student ratios.
Because schools already do their best to facilitate mental health services for many children—and have the most face-time with America’s youth—it’s critical that we invest in additional resources and a strong infrastructure of support that includes an adequate number of mental health professionals onsite. Utilizing telehealth services when needed will also assist in expanding care for students, particularly in delivering culturally competent care, including counselors that speak the same first language as students or better represent diverse student experiences. We have to meet kids where they are.
Consider that 50 percent of mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% begins by the time the brain is fully developed in an individual’s mid-20s. States seeking to enact important changes to prioritize mental health should be applauded. After all, studies show that early intervention and prevention measures will benefit youth long-term, particularly in better overall academic performance and social success.
Now, as advocates, we must use our voices to ensure that the promising legislation referenced above is actually signed into law, and that other states introduce similar legislation to make a difference. I encourage everyone to reach out to their representatives and urge them to take action on school-based mental health.
Often, I reflect on my days as a teacher and the third and sixth graders who sat in front of me. They have the ability to learn so much more than math, science, history, writing, etc. I’m determined to ensure that every student emerges with mental health literacy and the foundation of support they need to thrive in all aspects of life.