Students have always needed counseling services that go well beyond the college and career development that has become standard fare in American high schools. But today’s students—who increasingly suffer from depression, anxiety and various social pressures, even at a young age—demand more comprehensive support than ever before.
The trouble is, most of them aren’t getting it. Nationwide, there are about 111,000 school counselors serving 50.59 million students, or an average of one counselor for every 455 K-12 students, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), which draws on data from the U.S. Department of Education. Considering that most of those school counselors are disproportionately stationed in high schools and are oftentimes charged with helping students through the college admissions process, the ratio of counselors to students in elementary and middle schools becomes more bleak, notes Amanda Fitzgerald, ASCA’s director of public policy.
According to ASCA, counseling services fall into three critical domains: career development, academic counseling and social-emotional learning, the third of which has been in higher-than-usual demand in recent years. In many schools, especially those that serve younger students, one person is able to cover all three domains, typically approaching the third by offering classroom guidance that covers bullying, how to ask for help and how to talk about your feelings. That person can also work more closely with specific students who have been identified as needing short-term intervention, often in response to trauma, such as the death of a family member or parents’ divorce, Fitzgerald says.
If you have a 1:1000 ratio, you’re not getting into those classrooms. You’re just putting out fires.
Amanda Fitzgerald, director of public policy at ASCA
“Just like reading and math, students should be taught about their feelings—how to identify them and how to articulate them,” Fitzgerald explains.
But that job can’t be done—and certainly it can’t be done well—by any single individual who is stretched thin across a large school. Fitzgerald puts it this way: “If you have a 1:1000 ratio, you’re not getting into those classrooms. You’re just putting out fires.” ASCA recommends counselor-to-student ratios not exceed 1:250, far from the national average, which is currently almost double that. Of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, only two meet that standard: New Hampshire and Vermont. Hawaii is not far off, but the others have a long way to go.
Across the country, districts small and large are working to bring that ratio down and to bolster their counseling and support services for students. The need has become dire, with research indicating that young people today are plagued by unprecedented rates of mental health issues.
In Cobb County School District, the second-largest K-12 district in Georgia, with 112,000 students, Melisa Marsh oversees a 260-person counseling staff. A quick calculation will tell you that Cobb County performs slightly better than the national average, with one counselor for every 430 students, and significantly better than the state average, which is 1:466.
“We’re definitely not at 250, as ASCA recommends, but we’re below the national and state average,” Marsh says—and that’s something she hangs her hat on.
Each counselor in Cobb County provides support across all three ASCA domains, Marsh says.
“One person is trained in it all,” she explains. “The college counselor is also the grief counselor. The idea is they get to know you really well.”
When Cobb County hires a new school counselor, they provide training and orientation for how to be successful in the district, including how to collect data and how to effectively balance the caseload. But the best thing the district can do for a school counselor, new or experienced, Marsh says, is lower their caseload, even if it’s just by a few students.
“The smaller a counselor’s caseload is, the more personalized services they can provide,” Marsh adds.
But with one counselor serving more than 400 students each year, some students are bound to slip through the cracks. To address that, Cobb County created and filled two new district-wide positions this year for social-emotional learning specialists. “That is a huge support for students and staff,” Marsh shares.
The mental health crisis is very different today than anything we’ve seen in the past.
Melisa Marsh, supervisor of student counseling at Cobb County School District
The SEL specialists will spend this year training school leadership, including principals and assistant principals, on why social-emotional development is so important and what types of practices, programs and supports they can integrate into their schools to nurture it, in hopes of making SEL a district priority that starts at the top.
“Ideally, SEL is happening with every student all day long, not just during a 50-minute lesson from a counselor,” Marsh says. “It’s something teachers and administrators need to be doing every day, every minute they’re with students.”
Cobb County also has a full-time crisis coordinator on staff to work with students who are grieving from a death or tragedy. Maybe it’s a student whose parent was killed in a car accident. Or maybe it’s an entire classroom of students whose teacher was diagnosed with cancer. Whatever the event, she works with students through the grieving process and tries to support them in returning to a sense of normalcy. The crisis coordinator also holds suicide prevention trainings, restorative circles and leads events around team-building and repairing relationships. This year, the coordinator is focusing on staff self-care, in response to a needs assessment the district did last year.
District-wide, the counseling staff in Cobb County are paying close attention to the national conversation about young people and mental health, Marsh says, because it’s playing out locally for them, too. To address the increased mental health requests, the counselors are training teachers and administrators to look for signs of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation and learn how to talk about it with students.
Marsh suggests that one explanation for the uptick is that students feel more comfortable and confident discussing their mental health concerns than before. In other words, that the stigma has been reduced. But she also knows it runs deeper than that.
“Our students are now in an age we never had to experience,” she says. “When we went through a disappointing time—a breakup, rejection from college, a fight with a friend—we had time to process it before it was online, before 100 people commented on it. We could develop coping skills. But for students today, everything is immediate.”
Marsh adds: “I think the mental health crisis is very different today than anything we’ve seen in the past. But I am really hopeful that as we move forward, the more we talk about it, the less stigmatized it becomes.”
Across the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest public school districts in the nation, has also made some recent changes to better address students’ social-emotional and mental health needs, says Pia Escudero, the executive director of LA Unified’s Division of Student Health and Human Services.
In her role, Escudero supervises a staff of 2,500 professionals, ranging from child psychologists, psychiatric social workers and mental health counselors to nurses, pediatricians and other support staff. Together, they serve the district’s approximately 600,000 students across 1,300 sites. If you’re keeping up with the math, that’s a ratio of about 1:240—well within the range ASCA recommends.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point, Escudero says, but it was made possible by a string of district superintendents who prioritized student support services, tapped into various local, state and federal funding and took advantage of local partnerships.
After 30 years with the district, starting in 1988 as a psychiatric social worker, Escudero says a few things have become clear. One is that for students to be successful, in any sense of the word, they need to be taken care of socially and emotionally.
“The investment in support services is critical to move the needle toward 100 percent graduation and our children being able to achieve,” she says, referring to studies that show students with mental health disorders drop out at much higher rates than their unafflicted peers. “Really, to address the needs of children, we have to acknowledge that these supports are necessary.”
LA Unified is fortunate; the district has far more resources and counseling services than most. But even so, Escudero sees gaps. For example, she wants to help adults in the district better understand and support child development. It shouldn’t just fall to specialized staff. One way she plans to address that is by training teachers, administrators, counselors and even parents about research-backed, trauma-informed practices.
For the first time this year, LA Unified is mandating a professional development course for all teachers about what it means to have a “resilient, trauma-informed” district and what it looks like to use strategies in the classroom that address trauma, Escudero says, noting that some students who have experienced trauma might present as “hyperactive, hypervigilant, hyperaroused.” The district is also working to create a mini credential that teachers can earn; the credential will explore restorative justice, social-emotional learning and trauma, among other things.
Another recent change, made last year, is a rather unusual initiative that pairs a mental health practitioner with a police officer (LA Unified has its own district police force). The officer and social worker are co-located together and dispatched to incidents on campus together.
“They’re actually working out of a police officer’s car,” Escudero describes, “traveling together, ending the day together and learning from each other. They spend every day together.”
The idea is that, with a mental health practitioner on hand, an incident can be assessed and triaged appropriately, oftentimes de-escalating a scenario. “They’re teaching [officers] how to react to the situation, to determine the level of threat and level of need … and determine if it warrants law enforcement,” Escudero says. “It’s a multidisciplinary approach.” In many cases, she adds, police have averted psychiatric hospitalizations by handling the situation on site.
“Our teachers and administrators have so much going on every day,” Escudero says. “Their top priority is education. We can’t expect them to be everything. That’s why we’re building capacity elsewhere.”