As the pandemic continues to take a toll on kids and their mental health, getting them the support they need remains challenging.
School counselors are often a primary resource for mental wellness and guidance, but few can be found in America’s schools. According to the latest data from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 424 students during the 2019-20 school year. In Illinois, the ratio was one counselor for every 592 students. The association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.
“School counselors can provide a variety of mental health support to youth in schools including short-term individual one-on-one meetings, as well as small group interventions like grief counseling, stress management groups, anger management groups, and then also school counselors do classroom visits where they can talk about mental health topics like managing stress, signs of anxiety, and other mental health topics along those areas,” said Autumn Cabell, an assistant counseling professor at DePaul University.
The U.S. Surgeon General released a public advisory in December with recommendations to address what he called a “youth mental health crisis.” One of the recommentations was to “expand the school based mental health workforce, which includes using federal state and local resources to hire and train additional staff such as school counselors, nurses, social workers, and school psychologists”.
TaRael Kee, president of the Illinois School Counselor Association, agrees with the surgeon general’s recommendation, but hopes for more funding towards recruitment.
“I think the money needs to be allocated to hire more school counselors, but we also need to allocate money to great programs like DePaul so that they could market the school counseling program and get more candidates in there because we need school counselors all around the state,” Kee said. “We need to develop more programs around the state and I know we don’t have a ton in Illinois and we need more and we need to try to figure out a way to get school counselors at every grade level.”
Kee says school counselors are often overworked and overwhelmed, which can negatively impact a student and their mental health.
“They’re not able to go out and do some of those direct services, so like they need to be in there doing those classroom lessons using the ASCA (American School Counselor Association) national model to change mindsets and behaviors, to uplift students through tough times, to help them build resiliency when they're going through tough times, like we are now,” said Kee.
Autumn Cabell wrote an op-ed for USA Today and called the Surgeon general’s advisory “a clarion call to increase and diversify the ranks of mental health professionals in our nation’s schools.”
“It starts even in our master’s graduate programs for school counseling, the marketing materials for potential students who are interested in serving youth in the school system and marketing that to Black, brown men as well,” said Cabell. “We have a shortage of male school counselors in the school systems across the nation, and so being intentional, and even the marketing materials that are used for recruiting students to school counseling programs, and then once they’re there in those school counseling programs, retaining them in the school counseling programs by supporting them by letting them know that they're needed, that they are important, that there’s jobs for them out here in the workforce for school counseling and supporting them through every process.”
Stephanie Miller-Henderson is a professional school counselor for a CPS elementary school. She’s the only counselor for a school with about 400 students, a far bigger caseload than the 1 to 250 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
“The recommendation is there for a reason, and so I definitely think that some of those challenges would be at least cut in half if the ratio, you know, was the recommended ratio across the board in all of our schools in the country,” Miller-Henderson said. “I would say that I do feel like I have support, with the various funding and things that came down the pipeline during the pandemic. We have been able to receive support from community organizations with them coming into our buildings to counsel students. We do have a social worker presence, so I definitely feel that the support is there.”
Cabell says she’s noticed a shift in how America views mental health and now is the opportunity to capitalize on meeting the needs of students and working towards smaller caseloads for school counselors.