For many students, mental health resources start at school, but counselors are overwhelmed

The issue of ORS was not new: four years ago, student leaders from the Providence Student Union (PSU) launched a campaign to abolish ORS and replace them with school counselors and other school staff. health and safety after frequent reports of harassment and violence by the SRO of students of color. In June 2022, in response to the proposed plan to hire more SROs, the PSU board publicly petitioned against the plan and published an op-ed in The Journal of Providence asking that state funds be used instead to hire more school counselors. Students argued that BIPOC students benefited from the resources offered by the counselors. They have also been disproportionately targeted in school arrests. In 2020, black students made up only 16% of Providence’s student population, but they are more likely to be arrested at school, accounting for 30% of school arrests.

Studies have suggested that school counselors have a role in preventing violence in schools, but counselors often lack the resources and time to intervene effectively. Nationally, school administrators have recently sounded the alarm about a teacher shortage affecting districts. For school counselors, the shortage began long before the pandemic began. In 2019, one school counselor was responsible for an average of 464 students. In states like California, the average was nearly 800 students per counselor in 2018.

Precious López, executive director of PSU, added that the combined effect of underlying and untreated mental health issues in BIPOC communities continues to threaten marginalized students.

“It is unfortunate that the powers that be do not see that mental health is a pandemic in itself. This is something that plagues our BIPOC community,” López said. “So with our campaign, as we try to advocate for the removal of these police officers, we are also trying to show the positive aspects of what mental health resources can do for students and teachers, because burnout is real, not just for our students, but our teachers as well.

PSU has a long history of organizing students for initiatives to improve their education. After settling a federal class action lawsuit for the right to civics classes in June 2022, PSU students will serve on a task force to help develop a civics curriculum for Rhode Island schools. They also advocated for and achieved a pass/fail grading system for the final semester of the 2019-2020 school year to accommodate students during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gather mental health resources

Belony said their school is a welcome exception to what the data suggests. The Belony School employs five counsellors, each focusing on different groups of students, but each student should have the same kind of access to school resources and support.

“I’ve talked to my friends here at PSU all the time who go to Classical High School or Central High or Mount Pleasant, and they don’t get those things,” Belony said. “And I really feel like when we think about the future of our young people and how we can support them, it starts with giving them and their families those resources.”

But according to López, for communities like Providence, with high concentrations of immigrants and BIPOC families, even starting a conversation about mental health can be a barrier.

“It’s not something discussed in the BIPOC community, is it? It’s like, how do you deal with mental health issues? It’s not something we do. It’s not in our culture,” López said.

For López, giving students an early introduction to mental health resources through school counselors is key to eliminating cultural stigma. She agrees, however, that it can be difficult for students to access these resources. In the past, PSU has partnered with Rhode Island College graduate students who have completed an internship as Wellness Advocates at their Providence headquarters. But as with any nonprofit, López said, the ability to hire interns depends on funding, and this year the budget did not include interns. Nonetheless, López noted that the downside allowed for more innovation to fill gaps in student support.

“We are always trying to find different ways, through workshops and other resources, to provide our students with mental health support,” López said. “Whether it’s a workshop that our students lead or a workshop that we take them to with different organizations, I really focus on mental health and wellbeing.

During the pandemic, the pressures have increased for advisers

During the pandemic, school counselors quickly became the only source of mental health resources, especially in urban and rural communities. A survey by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education found that many school counselors did not feel supported in their role.

Counselors said they felt forgotten by school administrators. They also said they were concerned for students they knew were having difficulty during remote learning, but did not have clear instructions from school administrators on how to to involve these students.

At the start of the pandemic, counselors also said they were struggling to offer their services to the estimated 50.8 million students who relied on virtual learning. In some cases, districts required parental consent for video counseling, and others required parents to be present during sessions, which created difficulties with parents who were not at home. difficult to reach during school hours or reluctant to have their child receive advice.

Jill Cook, executive director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), said the biggest challenges facing counselors relate to all the mental health needs that have arisen during the pandemic. And meanwhile, Cook said it’s easy to forget school counselors aren’t licensed therapists or psychiatrists who can offer long-term help to those who need it most.

“There’s been a lot said and written about this, and there’s certainly a lot of research that has indicated an increase in concerns about pre-pandemic mentality in college students,” Cook said. “But by far most of the concerns reported by school counselors since the pandemic are around anxiety, increased discipline issues, increased absenteeism.”

Cook said that before the pandemic, the profession struggled with an ongoing shortage of school counselors across the country, which only made the problem worse in 2020. Now, Cook adds, with fewer students enrolled in higher education and low rates of graduates with qualifying degrees, there are fewer advisers to meet the suggested student-advisor ratio. Nationally, the ASCA provides one counselor for every 250 students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Rhode Island has the highest student-to-counsellor ratio in New England, while other states like Massachusetts will need to hire about 1,000 more school counselors to meet the recommended ratio. .

Now more than ever, Cook says the role of a school counselor is critical to student success, especially for those who may be experiencing anxiety or mental distress because of the pandemic. Additionally, Cook said the ASCA is currently working to diversify the field through local and state initiatives hosted by different chapters of the organization.

“We know that students benefit from teachers, school counselors and educators who are like them in these positions,” she said. “And as our country has diversified, the teaching profession has not. So the good news is that there are people coming into school counseling and education who bring great perspectives and diversity. But there is still a long way to go. We know this from our own members. We are not there yet.

Cook said there was a positive side to the increased awareness of mental health issues created by the pandemic. State governments have funded mental wellness initiatives and hired more school counselors to work in struggling districts.

States like Connecticut have taken steps to empower students to recognize mental health issues by passing legislation in 2021 that allows students to take mental wellness days during the school year. And although Connecticut is one of 12 states to legally allow mental wellness days, few students are aware of the initiative.

For Eugenie Belony, co-director of PSU, advocating for more school counselors and using the resources offered by organizations like PSU is a start to better serve students in Providence. Eventually, however, Belony believes that more intentional action by school leaders and local government will be essential to ensure that BIPOC students receive academic and emotional support in their public schools.

“Yes, we love the community, we work with the community, but we do it so much that sometimes it feels like the schools are missing out,” Belony said. “I think finding ways to fill the gaps through community involvement is great, but something more could be done to hold schools accountable.”

Kio Herrera is a journalist based in New York. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Toni Stabile Fellow in Investigative Journalism. His previous work focuses on education, criminal justice and health care. His reporting and research has been published at the Center for Public Integrity, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico, The New Republic, and the Marshall Project.

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