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The counselor is out

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WORLD Radio - The counselor is out

Schools face a shortage of emotional support staff, just when students need them most


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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 23rd of December, 2021. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you’ve joined us today! Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up on The World and Everything in It: school counselors. Or, the lack of them.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a dire warning: The pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems among young people.

Here’s just one marker: The number of adolescent girls taken to emergency rooms for suspected suicide attempts doubled between early 2019 and 2021.

BROWN: Mental health concerns often affect a child’s education. That’s not new. But with trauma and disruption on the rise, schools are facing a shortage of counselors trained to help. WORLD correspondent Lauren Dunn reports.

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Loretta Whitson is a founding member and the executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. She’s worked as a teacher, school counselor, and district administrator. And over the years she’s had to intervene in some challenging situations.

Whitson remembers one instance in particular, when school administrators asked for her help identifying a student who had posted suicidal messages on social media.

WHITSON: She had a hat, we couldn't tell who she was. And she was saying on Instagram, that she was really suicidal. And it took a day  for the counseling team to go through pictures, and try to figure out who this kid was. And so then I was, you know, I went down there to help and, and I, we figured out I called the parent, I was the one in charge of calling the mom. And I said, Mom, I said, it was a difficult call. I said, because I'm a mom, too.

For years, teachers and school counselors have worked with students facing mental health challenges. But amid the instability of the pandemic, educators are seeing more and more students in need of help.

And school counselors are in short supply.

Whitson says that was a problem even before COVID-19. But the gap has only grown wider in the last 18 months.

WHITSON: Just like teachers – we've seen teachers leaving the workforce, retiring early, saying this is too hard. We're seeing that with school counselors…

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one school counselor. During the 2019-2020 school year, the national student-counselor ratio averaged 424 to 1. Many states reported ratios of more than 600 to 1.

That’s a problem because high caseloads can prevent counselors from proactively identifying at-risk students.

Studies by healthcare company Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have defined 10 general categories of trauma that affect students. These categories are usually called “adverse childhood experiences.” They include things like direct abuse; substance abuse or mental illness in the household; parental separation or divorce; an incarcerated family member; domestic violence; and emotional or physical neglect.

WHITSON: My phrase was, and it still is, many of these children live in homes that would defeat me.

On top of the universal COVID-related challenges, many of those adverse childhood experiences increased during the pandemic, including domestic violence and child abuse.

WHITSON: I think we'll know a lot more and as we get down the road, a couple years from now we'll be able to reflect back and say, what did we experience here? What was the real pieces of those things? But we know it's a lot. We don't know what is there, but I think we should approach it as if we're in a crisis.

Shannon Underwood is a middle-school counselor and president-elect of the Michigan School Counselor Association. She says even when teachers are using the best curriculum or materials, a student in crisis will not be able to learn.

UNDERWOOD: I think the number one way trauma affects children is that when you are all consumed with the events that have happened to you, and around you, and you don't feel safe, your brain is like on fire and there is no room when your brain’s concentrating that much on all these events in your life. There is no room in there for your brain to calm down so that you can learn…

Whitson says it isn’t always easy for schools to identify who needs extra help. Some students who have experienced trauma may act out. Others may try to please the adults around them out of fear.

WHITSON: I think the easiest thing is, the acting out kid is easy to find. So they're causing disruption in the classroom, they're saying things or doing things. And those when I was a school counselor, those are the ones you know, that's the ones that are ushered into my office, right. But it's the acting in students, the ones that are maybe disheveled, sleep in class, disengaged, sit alone at the lunch counter, you know, tables, those are difficult to know.

Lezya Weglarz is on the board of directors for the California Association of School Counselors. She also oversees school counselors in the San Marcos Unified School District in San Diego County. Weglarz says school counselors keep a “pulse” on student needs by observing student behavior, monitoring attendance records, and keeping in contact with the school nurse.

WEGLARZ: I think our lens as counselors is kind of that big picture, not just the student in the classroom, who you want them to do well in math, we're thinking kind of we're pulling back the layers and thinking of that student more holistically about what might be going on outside of school that might be impacting how they present at school.

Weglarz says students who have experienced trauma may feel its effects for the rest of their lives. But counselors can help them work toward healing by building positive relationships and inspiring hope.

WEGLARZ: So that's why it's so critical that as counselors and other student service professionals, mental health, school based mental health professionals that we're proactively supporting students to try to minimize the negative effects of their early childhood experiences.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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