1 Adult, 600 Students: Overwhelmed School Counselors Detail Duties, Burnout

The American School Counselor Association reported earlier this year that Indiana has a school counselor-to-student ratio of 694 to 1.

This photo is of Haley Radomski working at an ice cream shop
Haley Radomski works at an ice cream shop in Indianapolis after leaving her job as a school counselor. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

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Donning an apron and hair net, Haley Radomski had few breaks while dishing out samples of ice cream to a stream of treat-seeking customers on a Friday afternoon in June.

She shuffled around the downtown Indianapolis ice cream shop preparing milkshakes and waffles cones in between exchanges. Even while working a solo shift, Radomski was quick to turn her attention to each new face, greeting them with a jovial, “Happy Friday!

It’s a stark difference from the halls of the Johnson County high school where she worked just a year before. A former school counselor, Radomski said she loved working with students — although she was responsible for more than 600 kids in 2022. She loved the job, too — or at least the idea of it — “but it was also killing me.”

“I think the first year (as a counselor), I had on some rose-colored glasses about what that job really looks like,” she said. “And then, especially after the pandemic, the ramping up of mental health issues and the dependency on schools to handle those, that was a huge shift.”

“It was basically like being hosed to the face — it wasn’t sustainable. I wouldn’t get up to pee, I wouldn’t be drinking water, because my door was always revolving,” Radomski continued. “What do you want me to choose? Do you want me to assess and deal with a suicidal child? Or do you want me to tell them that they’re failing five classes and figure that out? We all know what the answer has to be, but with all these different expectations that you have to meet, there’s no way that we can do it all.”

She left the job last year, just four years after entering the field. Radomski, who holds a master’s degree in school counseling, said she has no plans to return.

The American School Counselor Association reported earlier this year that Indiana has a school counselor-to-student ratio of 694 to 1 — well above the national average.

Some Indiana lawmakers argued during the most recent legislative session that school counselors need help — especially to address student mental health needs — and that the state should earmark more funding to boost the number of counselors. But a slew of newly-enacted laws are instead expected to add even more to current school counselors’ workloads, with little additional aid.

That included the passage of House Enrolled Act 1002, a massive bill that puts in motion statewide career-centered education and training programs, as well as new requirements for counselors.

Now, as the needs of Hoosiers students grow more demanding, Indiana school counselors say they’re experiencing their own crisis.

“I’m not going back and doing that anymore, and that is terrifying. It makes me so upset and sad. And I can also say not being in it is much healthier for me,” Radomski said. “I can work way less hours, and I can make the same amount of money. And I’m not dealing with these really, truly life or death situations. I just get to work with ice cream all day, which has been eye-opening. Like, what in the world was I doing?”

Expectations vs. reality

Radomski said she entered the school counseling field looking for “a good blend” between her love for mental health and an interest in tracking career pathways and academics.

“I thought that it would give me a good balance, so I could stave off the burnout that comes with just dealing with mental health on its own,” she said. “I like being in the yuck. I like situations that are hard and helping students, supporting students.”

But early in her tenure, Radomski said she was met with a “large dissonance” between what school administrators “either believe the school counselor’s role is or what the expectations are, versus what we’re actually licensed to do.”

Radomski said parents also “have a huge dependency” on teachers and counselors “to fix everything,” adding to the stress and the conflict over how to best respond to anything from student pregnancies or domestic violence at home, to serious, unresolved mental health crises that require immediate action.

“We’d have parents send their kids to school and call us and say, ‘My kid told me they wanted to kill themselves this morning. Can you check on them?’ It’s like, well, why did you send them to school? We’re not a hospital,” she recalled. “It’s great that they’re reaching out for help … but seeing us as the first person to contact in that high-crisis situation, it’s very distressing.”

After four years, Radomski said she had an emotional, “crisis-level” breakdown of her own.

“It wasn’t the stress from the situations themselves. It was from the different bodies … whether it’s the parents, laws, the school system itself, the kids, other professionals — there are all these differences in how we should handle things, and the expectations are absolutely where my stress came from,” Radomski said.

“It was always, ‘Am I going to get in trouble for this?’ ‘Did I do the right thing?’’ she continued. “Even though I can figure that out myself, just based on my training, hearing all these other voices made that really challenging. I was just ruminating over these things forever.”

The burnout Radomski described was echoed by more than half a dozen other school counselors — current and former — who spoke to the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

All shared stories about overwhelming student caseload numbers and an increasing frequency of critical student incidents needing addressed, mostly related to depression, anxiety, bullying and suicidal ideation. Some counselors additionally expressed frustration over additional assigned duties — like bus and lunch duty monitoring and substitute teaching — which further takes away from their time to help students.

Most were unwilling to speak openly about their experiences, however, largely due to concerns about backlash from school and district administrators.

“A living hell”

The American School Counselor Association divides school counselors’ roles into three domains: applying academic achievement strategies, managing emotions and applying interpersonal skills, and planning for postsecondary options.

The national association makes it clear that appropriate duties for school counselors include:

  • academic planning advisement
  • providing short-term counseling to students
  • overseeing new student orientation
  • interpreting student records and cognitive/aptitude/achievement tests
  • consulting with teachers and school principals, including to resolve student issues

But they should not be expected to provide long-term counseling to address psychological disorders, cover classes for teachers, supervise classrooms or common areas, or keep clerical records, among other tasks.

Indiana’s legal framework creates “loopholes” that school administrators can use to compel counselors to perform other duties, said Anna Sutter, a former counselor at a middle school on the southeast side of Indianapolis who said she spent up to four hours some days as a hallway or cafeteria monitor. Although counselors are bound to their own professional codes, requirements laid out in state and federal laws are more limited to topics like confidentiality and mandatory reporting of abuse.

Starting her career in 2017, Sutter said the job was “stressful, but at least manageable,” until the onset of the pandemic. She worked as a counselor for more than five years before she too felt like she had no choice but to quit. Her videos about her experiences as a counselor have since reached millions on TikTok.

“A lot of people just think of school counselors as dealing with grades or schedules. No. I was dealing with sex trafficking, bullying — some really intense things — homelessness, drug use from kids, drug use from parents, violence, murders, shootings, gun violence in the school … it was a lot,” Sutter said. “I only lasted five years, and that’s OK. And I keep telling myself that. But I miss it every day. I really love those students, and there’s definitely nothing like it. But it was a living hell at the same time.”

Her caseload rose to more than 900 at its peak. It wasn’t until she posted about the student-to-counselor ratio on social media, risking disciplinary action, that school administrators hired help. Even so, her caseload still topped 600 students.

This picture is of Anna Sutter, a former Indianapolis school counselor.
Anna Sutter, a former middle school counselor, now works for an Indianapolis nonprofit that centers its work around social emotional learning resources for underserved youth. (From Sutter’s LinkedIn)

Making just $48,000 per year, Sutter said she had to supplement long, sometimes 12-hour days at her school with babysitting and cross country coaching to make ends meet.

“I’m the one that sees all of it. I’m the one that’s seeing all of these kids have these needs, and the district and school are telling me to focus on other things,” she continued, noting the annual number of student suicide assessments in her school doubled after the pandemic. “But then, when something happens with a child, they come back to me and say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’ So, there’s a lot of legal and ethical pressure that’s put on school counselors.”

Sutter said she became depressed, even having suicidal ideations. She signed herself up for therapy and started taking medication to alleviate her own mental health complications caused by the job.

“I was advocating so much, but hearing really, really hopeless, harmful things from my administrators that I was like, I either have to quit, or I have to check myself into inpatient,” she said about her abrupt resignation in February 2022. “Leaving immediately felt like a relief. I immediately felt like I was in a different life — it was so shocking. I would cry every day out of happiness.”

More students in need, fewer counselors

Indiana’s student-to-counselor ratio is currently the highest in the country, with schools employing just 1,494 counselors statewide for more than 1 million students. Compared to the national average, that’s 286 more students per counselor.

Even last year’s ratio of 475 students per counselor put Indiana far above the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250-to-1.

Julie Hill, a school counselor at Western Boone Junior and Senior High School and member of the Indiana School Counselor Association, said counselors’ increasing stress and heavy student caseloads are “sadly … not a new trend.”

“I think we’re seeing an increase in student mental health needs coupled with ongoing changes in academic and post-secondary requirements that exacerbate the existing problem,” Hill told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “When there is a lengthy wait time for community mental health providers, school counselors often work to fill that gap within the scope of expertise. School counselors are also bearing the brunt of tracking various student requirements and re-advising students as a result of recent changes. And with caseloads on the rise, these all add up quickly.”

This is a photo of Julie Hill, an Indiana school counselor
Julie Hill, a school counselor at Western Boone Junior and Senior High School and a member of the Indiana Counseling Association. (Photo courtesy the Indiana Counseling Association)

There’s currently no system to track the data around those leaving the profession, but Hill said it’s “a trend that is concerning.”

“The increased demands on counselors are certainly a contributing factor. And like other educators, many have additional jobs to help support their families. Others are leaving the profession because the job is so filled with non-counseling duties, it’s not the job they went to school for,” she said. “With these factors in play, it becomes difficult to attract new individuals to the profession.”

Health and education officials in Indiana and across the country have repeatedly called attention to students’ increasing mental health needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a 2021 advisory report, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said a “widespread” mental health care crisis was already affecting children, adolescents, and young adults — and it was only accelerated by the pandemic.

More recently, in May, Murthy released another advisory, warning about the potential effects social media use has on youth mental health, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens. In 2021, one out of every three Hoosier students from 7th to 12th grade reported experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness, according to the Indiana Youth Institute. One out of seven students made a plan to commit suicide.

Those statistics are part of what pushed Indiana University sophomore Trinity Campbell to seek out a career in school counseling. Originally from northwest Indiana, Campbell said she wanted to be a “guiding light” for kids, citing the positive influences of her own high school counselor.

But halfway through her schooling, Campbell said she changed course to pursue a future working in formal medical settings, not schools, pointing to “uncertain working environments” and too few resources for counselors.

“I just don’t know if working in an Indiana school is a good or healthy idea anymore,” Campbell said. “All the time I see online … or on social media … about how stressed teachers and counselors are, and how it just seems like things are getting worse. Why would I want to put myself through that?”

In the most recent 2023 legislative session, state lawmakers prioritized a “reinvention” of Hoosier high school curriculum as the state tries to reverse its dismal college-going and credentialing rates, stymie other academic impacts following the COVID-19 pandemic and help fill open jobs around the state.

The GOP’s sweeping plan was rolled into HEA 1002, which at its core seeks to expand work-based learning in Indiana high schools and enable students to earn a post-secondary credential before leaving the K-12 system.

Elements of the legislation require public high schools to offer an annual career fair during regular school hours, and for meetings to be arranged between students and prospective employers or colleges.

Members of the Republican supermajority said they preferred to focus on career readiness and bringing in outside “career-coaching counselors” to help schools train up more students.

Democrats emphasized the new law only gives traditional school counselors more to do.

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, who chairs the Senate education committee, said earlier this year  that he “disagree(s) some” with “rhetoric” about a “crisis” over teachers and counselors leaving: “We’re in crisis in every industry with workers.”

He maintained that HEA 1002 would be “an opportunity to reach outside (school) walls and bring people in.”

Indianapolis Republican Rep. Bob Behning, who chairs the House Education Committee, agreed that the focus of the bill is to “really look at coaching, as opposed to a role of a traditional school counselor.”

Indianapolis Democrat Rep. Ed DeLaney pushed back, holding that Indiana’s school counselors “are overwhelmed,” and that new career-training programs will fail if the underlying counseling “crisis” isn’t addressed first.

“I have sat there for years on the House Education Committee and watched them change the tests, changed the pathways that you have to increase more options, more diplomas. And this just puts a huge burden on our counselors,” DeLaney said. “When you’re in a state that is providing so many pathways, so many requirements, so many rules … If we’re going to impose these costs, the state should pay for more counselors. I’m saying, let’s be logical.”

DeLaney responded with his own idea to give financial incentives to Hoosier school districts to lower the ratio down to 350 students per counselor at the high school level. The proposal was briefly discussed in the House Education Committee but never materialized.

Hill, with the state counselors association, said “the most meaningful solutions recommended by school counselors don’t seem to be the ones that are supported” at the Statehouse.

She said, too, the impact of HEA 1002 remains unclear, given that it’s still unknown how language in the new law will be defined, interpreted and implemented.

What comes next?

The state’s next two-year budget includes a $1.487 billion increase in tuition support for schools of all types, but none of those dollars are specifically required to be used for school counselor employment.

Democrats cautioned that teacher and counselor shortages are likely to persist — or worsen — given the new appropriations won’t even be enough for schools to keep up with inflation.

Still, new efforts are underway in Indiana to increase the number of school psychologists — of which there is also a significant shortage.

Data from the National Association of School Psychologists shows that as of January, Indiana averaged one psychologist to every 1,502 students — more than 200% more than the recommended ratio.

A new five-year $5.7 million federal grant received by Indiana University in May will help the school to train more than 100 mental health social workers, who will be placed as school-based therapists in various Hoosier school districts.

But their jobs differ from counselors.

School counselors are a resource for the entire student population and focus on individual or group sessions to build skills to overcome social and behavioral challenges and improve academic performance. School psychologists, on the other hand, are responsible for conducting mental health evaluations, diagnosing mental health issues, and writing individual education plans.

Hill emphasized that in many schools, the licensed school counselor is among those with the highest level of educational attainment, having earned a minimum of 48 to 60 graduate credits to receive a master’s degree. 

“However, the help most often proposed is to bring in other individuals, with or without meaningful training, to provide career and/or college advising, while the master’s-level school counselor with graduate education in post-secondary planning is still spending significant portions of their time on various duties or proctoring tests,” Hill said, adding that the association’s “preferred” support “will always be more licensed school counselors who are fully equipped to provide those student services as part of a comprehensive school counseling program.”

Another option is for schools to hire other staff to fulfill all the non-counseling duties counselors are currently providing.

In the meantime, Hill said the state association is encouraging counselors “to be very intentional” about boundaries and self-care in an effort to prevent burnout.

“But many school counselors will still overextend themselves because of what their students need,” Hill conceded.

Sutter, who’s now the Director of Program Management for Fight for Life Foundation, an Indianapolis nonprofit that seeks to help underserved youth gain social emotional learning skills, said increasing counselor pay and decreasing caseloads are the two biggest needs.

Every school district should also have a union representative with a school counseling background to represent the school counselors, she said.

“But the way things are now, I would never go back. You couldn’t pay me six figures to go back to that environment,” Sutter said. “Leaving was like the hardest thing I ever had to do, because I miss it every day, but that job was going to kill me.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com. Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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