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After Shootings and Hurricanes, Where Are the School Counselors?

With both kinds of traumatic events on the rise, school counselors can't keep up with the demand for mental health services.

School counselor talks to student
A school counselor speaks with a second-grade student traumatized by a major hurricane.
(AP/Rogelio Solis)
Janine Menard is just one person, but as a school counselor, she's responsible for the well-being of 1,300 students. Because of this ratio, she says she missed the signs of a "good student" who committed suicide.

“She was in such pain, and I couldn’t see it,” says Menard, who has been a school counselor for 15 years and chairs the Arizona School Counselors Association's Board of Directors.

She's the only school counselor for two different schools, and most of her time is spent on the neediest students -- those in foster care or living in extreme poverty. 

Arizona has 924 students for every school counselor -- the highest ratio in the country. The nationwide average is 482 to 1, almost double what the American School Counselor Association recommends, which is 250 students for every counselor.

According to Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, “it’s mostly a state and local funding issue.” More than half the states (29) provided less per-pupil education funding in 2015 -- the most recent year with available data -- than they did in 2008. During the Great Recession, the nationwide number of school support staff, which includes counselors, fell by almost 39,000

The decrease in money and resources comes at a time when advocates say the need for mental health care in schools is greater than ever. A changing climate is causing unprecedented natural disasters, leaving students suddenly homeless. An increase in school shootings has led to a nationwide push for gun control led by students who say they are scared to go to school.

“Anyone in education will tell you, students have more needs than ever before,” says Cook. “Even without the school shootings, there’s increases in poverty, homelessness, foster care children. We need more people.”

Perhaps no place exemplifies this more than Puerto Rico, where residents will likely be reeling from the mental health effects of Hurricanes Maria and Irma for years to come.

Hurricane Maria killed a reported 112 people, though The New York Times estimates that number could be upwards of 1,000. It left many parts of the island without food, water, electricity and housing for months. Some still lack those basic necessities. Since Maria, calls to the suicide hotline -- some from children -- have tripled, according to a report from Puerto Rico’s Commission for Suicide Prevention.

That caught the attention of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The agency sent a team to Puerto Rico to train teachers there in psychological first aid, which focuses on helping people identify and address mental health problems among survivors of a traumatic event.

Over two weeks, the New York team trained more than 1,500 Puerto Rican teachers and school staff, says Oxiris Barbot, first deputy commissioner of New York City's mental health department.

It’s hard to get exact numbers on mental health resources in Puerto Rico, but Barbot says they are more scarce than on the mainland. And even before the hurricanes hit, the island had been losing psychologists and psychiatrists to the mainland. The storms exacerbated that exodus.

“There are some parts of the island that look like Maria hit yesterday,” she says.


'They Wanted to Know That Their Feelings Mattered'

School districts on the mainland may have more mental health resources than Puerto Rico, but they are still not enough.

After the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year, Menard, the school counselor from Arizona, says some students flagged her down, wanting to talk about the tragedy. 

"They wanted to know they were safe and loved. They wanted to know that their feelings mattered. But I had to go to my other school," she says. "Teachers were then advised not to engage with their students about it, but I think they needed more. That’s what happens when you have a high ratio of counselors to students, and teachers have to teach math."

As state and local governments spend less on education, teachers increasingly feel the brunt of their students' mental health needs.

“How do you develop rapport with 1,300 kids? You don’t, you’re triaging. If a kid comes to school with trauma, it falls on the teacher to deal with it, and they are already undercompensated and stressed,” says Menard.

Some teachers have reached their breaking point with the levels of funding, pay and benefits for their job. Last month, teachers in West Virginia went on strike for nine days, resulting in a 5 percent pay raise, and teachers in Oklahoma went on strike last Monday, calling for more education funding. Similar protests have closed some schools in Kentucky and threaten to shut down schools in Arizona.

But it’s not all bad news everywhere.

Chicago, a city that’s been plagued with alarming rates of gun violence in recent years, has hired more school counselors, according to Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. The school district's ratio of 303 students to every counselor is still higher than the association recommends but better than the national average.

The association also awarded its annual counselor of the year award to Kirsten Perry, who works at Chicago’s historically troubled Lawndale Community Academy. The district recently changed the school's overall rating from a level three ‘distressed’ school to a level two ‘mid-performing’ school Cook says that can be attributed to the counselor’s work around restorative justice and community-building.

For advocates, Lawndale's progress is proof that investments in mental health improve the overall culture and educational outcomes of schools.

“The importance of mental health services in schools can’t be overstated, independent of disasters," says Barbot, the New York City official. "But when a disaster happens, there’s a huge benefit to it because the mental health impacts of a disaster are felt for years afterward."

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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