Schools struggle to staff youth mental health crisis

Mira Ugwadu felt anxious and depressed when she returned to her high school in Cobb County, Georgia, for the last time after months of distance learning, so she sought help. But her school counselor kept rescheduling their meetings because she had too many students to see.

The Class 12 student later said, “I felt helpless and alone.”

despite a COVID-19 Relief Fund FlowSchool districts across the country have struggled to staff up to meet the mental health needs of students that have increased since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Of the 18 largest school districts in the country, 12 began this school year with fewer counselors or psychologists than in 2019, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat. As a result, many school mental health professionals have caseloads that far exceed recommended limits, according to experts and advocates, and students must wait for urgently needed help.

school mental health
Mira Ugwadu, 17, poses for a portrait on November 17, 2022 in Marietta, Georgia.

Brian Anderson / AP

Some of the additional need for support has been absorbed by social workers — federal data shows their ranks have increased by nearly 50% since before the pandemic — but they have different clinical training and support from families than other mental health professionals. There are many other duties including doing . The districts included in the analysis, which serve a combined 3 million students, started the year with nearly 1,000 unfilled mental health positions.

Hiring challenges are largely to blame, but some school systems have invested relief money in other priorities. The Cobb County District, for one, hasn’t added any new counselors.

“They have so many students they’re dealing with,” Mira, 17, said. “I don’t want to blame them personally. But I also deserve care and support.”

A spokesperson for Cobb County Public Schools said school counselor positions are based on the state’s funding formula, and the district favors more funding.

The Chalkbeat analysis is based on school staffing and vacancy data obtained through open records requests. The 31 largest districts in the US were surveyed, but some were not tracked or provided data.

Some school systems used federal relief funds to add mental health staff, but others did not because they were concerned about affording them once the aid ended. Districts have limited time to spend the nearly $190 billion allocated for recovery.

“Here’s the conundrum that we’re in,” said Christy McCoy, president of the School Social Work Association of America. “It feels like we’re trying to put a Band-Aid on something that needs a more comprehensive and integrated approach.”

Many schools that want to hire more mental health staff can’t find them. School psychologist positions have been particularly difficult to fill.

Psychologists on the youth mental health crisis related to the pandemic


For example, Chicago added 32 school psychologist positions since the fall of 2019, but ended up with just one additional psychologist on staff this fall. Dozens of posts could not be filled.

Schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, eliminated dozens of unfilled psychologist positions, leaving schools with 33 fewer psychologists than they had pre-pandemic. Houston schools also cut more than a dozen psychologist roles that could not be filled before the pandemic. Instead, the district used the money to pay outside providers and hire psychological interns.

With their extended training, school psychologists are trusted to provide intensive one-on-one counseling and help determine whether students are at risk for suicide.

In Maryland, a shortage of psychologists in Montgomery County public schools has kept the small-staffed department focused on crisis intervention and providing legally mandated services such as special education assessments, said Christina Connolly-Chester, director of psychological services. . This means they cannot keep up with other, less urgent counseling services.

“If that psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and they are not able to spend much time in their assigned schools, then things like counseling get taken away,” she said.

A district official said this month that the district sought to hire staff to meet growing student needs such as those struggling with anxiety, depression and conflict management, but still had 30 vacant psychologist positions.

Even before the pandemic, some schools had struggled to find psychologists. New physicians are not entering the field fast enough, and others are switching to telehealth or private practices with higher pay and often better working conditions.

“We can’t pay professionals enough to make this a desirable position,” said Sharon Hoover, a psychologist who co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland.

Counselor staffing has also been a challenge for some districts, with nine large districts experiencing a shortage of counselors this year, while another nine have seen an increase.

Where recruiting has been hardest, schools have turned to alternatives. In Hawaii, where 31 counselor positions and 20 psychologist positions were open at the beginning of the year, the state has trained teachers to spot when a student is in crisis — an increasingly common practice — and tele- Pays a private company to provide Mental Health Services.

It’s not just hiring challenges that have led to lower-than-expected workforce growth. Some school systems spend most of their federal aid on more permanent investments, such as technology or building repairs. And many chose not to add new mental health staff at all.

In the ChalkBeat analysis, half of the 18 large districts budgeted for fewer counselor or psychologist positions this school year than in 2019.

school mental health
Natalie Rincon poses for a photo outside Houston Elementary School on November 17, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Rincon, one of the new social workers, has seen firsthand the benefits of having a full mental health team in her elementary school, where many of the students are refugees or newly arrived immigrant students coping with trauma from their migration.

David J. Phillip / AP

In April, just 4 in 10 districts reported hiring new staff to address the mental health needs of students, according to a national survey.

“For all the talk about mental health, the actual money they’re spending isn’t that much,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University that tracks school spending. Is. School districts plan to spend about 2% of the largest round of federal COVID aid on mental health hiring, according to the Group’s analysis of more than 5,000 district spending plans.

One bright spot in the school mental health landscape, however, is the increase in social workers.

Montgomery County in Maryland, Gwinnett County in Georgia, and Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida all started the year with dozens more social workers than in 2019. Chicago added the most — about 150 additional social workers — partly because of staffing promises in the latest teachers’ union contract.

The ChalkBeat analysis echoes national data collected by the White House that shows the number of school social workers dropped by 48% compared to before the pandemic, while the number of school counselors was up more than 12% and school The psychologists’ count climbed 4%.

In Houston, an increase in staffing means nearly every school started this fall with a counselor or social worker.

Newly hired social worker Natalie Rincon is able to meet face-to-face with students who are in distress and teach other students calming strategies, such as tracing your hand with your finger while breathing.

Still, needs often exceed capacity at Rincón’s school, where many students are refugees or recent immigrants experiencing trauma. They often have to prioritize helping students with urgent issues, leaving less time to check on others.

“I want to be able to talk to a kindergartner just about how they’re feeling,” Rincon said. “I think things like this slip through the cracks.”

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