3 Steps School Districts Can Take to Address the Student Mental Health Crisis

Smith: Districts may think the fix lies in hiring more counselors, but getting to a real solution requires a more nuanced understanding of the problem

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The nation’s schools are facing a crisis. The pandemic slowed student learning, and schools and families are eager to see academic improvement as quickly as possible. Access to trained school counselors can help students succeed in their classes, but there are too few counselors supporting too many kids with too varied challenges.

This problem predates the pandemic, and conditions have only worsened. The national student-to-counselor ratio last year was 408 to 1, significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250 to 1. These counselors are being asked to serve as class schedulers, test administrators, career coaches, social workers and even lunch monitors. All the while, students’ needs are not being met. Adolescents’ suspected suicide attempts have risen dramatically, teenage girls are reporting record levels of sadness, and the child and adolescent mental health crisis has been declared a national emergency.

What can be done?

Districts are often told the fix lies in simply hiring more counselors, but getting to a real solution requires a more nuanced understanding of the problem. The work my colleagues and I have done with more than 100 school districts and state agencies has led to a three-pronged approach to supporting students’ mental health.

First, it’s critical for districts to understand what services they need from a counselor. Hiring someone to support emotional crises is different from hiring someone to help students find the right college or career pathway, for example. Schools might need a behavioral specialist, or a college access coach, or a psychologist. Getting clear on staffing levels and students’ needs is essential before hiring anyone.

Districts should then establish firm guidelines to ensure mental health staff spend their time working on tasks that require their expertise, rather than the hodgepodge of activities they are often pulled into. One district leader we work with contacts principals whenever counselors are assigned ad hoc responsibilities, reminding the school leaders to prioritize their counselors. Another district encourages the hiring of part-time specialists to coordinate tests or schedule classes and free counselors from the unrelated work that often eats away at their time. 

Once districts disentangle their support staff, they may realize they already have what they need — or, at the very least, will be clear about the hole they need to fill.

Second, districts need to engage in community partnerships. With just 8% of districts meeting the 500-students-per-counselor ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists, there’s no way to hire enough mental health professionals outright. Creating partnerships with local mental health professionals can provide much-needed capacity, and by including local organizations attuned to a community, schools can better meet students’ needs. That said, working with third-party providers creates logistical challenges. These services often need to be marketed to students and families, schedules need to be coordinated and meeting space needs to be provided. There also need to be pre-established back-up plans for when a counselor can’t make it, or the student is sick, or the school is operating on an early-release or delayed schedule. Checklists can help with this.

Third, districts should consider telehealth services. It’s rare for one or even several community partners to be able to meet the mental health services needs of an entire district. We recently worked with a large district that hired additional counselors, embraced community partnerships and still found it wasn’t enough to meet the increased demand post-pandemic. Implementing a telehealth option enabled them to scale up quickly to better meet students’ needs. 

The key was prioritizing family communication, in multiple languages, to help parents better understand teletherapy. We helped the district create email, text message and robocall templates for school leaders and counselors to use to publicize the new services, drew up infographics to demonstrate the signup and scheduling process and prepared answers to frequently asked questions about data security and insurance. This all demonstrated to parents and caregivers that when students have access to mental health services at school, test scores, attendance, grade-point averages and graduation rates all increase, disciplinary infractions decrease and students are more likely to plan for college and careers.

The district can now serve additional students during and after school hours, and without the need for families to drive their children across town for an appointment.This moment calls for comprehensive planning across academics and wellness, shifts in allocation of time and priorities, and stronger coordination of out-of-school-time providers. A new round of grants from the U.S. Department of Education specifically for school-based mental health services will greatly aid these efforts. By identifying their needs, establishing community partnerships and looking at creative telehealth options, districts can develop innovative ways to ensure students receive the support they deserve.

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