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Schools short on counselors as student trauma worsens

Mental health needs have grown during the pandemic, but many school districts lack sufficient counseling

Counselor Michele Kimle visits with a sixth grader in her office at Hastings Middle School in Nebraska on Thursday. Associated Press/Photo by Laura Beahm/The Hastings Tribune

Schools short on counselors as student trauma worsens

Loretta Whitson remembers being called to a school in her district to help administrators locate a potentially suicidal student. School officials had noticed someone using the school’s internet was operating an Instagram account under the name “Suicide Girl.” The Instagram user covered her face, so counselors pored over photos until they identified the student.

It was Whitson who called the girl’s mother. “It was a difficult call,” she said. “Because I’m a mom, too.”

Mental health needs in schools are nothing new: Many students endure traumatic experiences or difficult situations at home. But the problem seems to have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some counselors and experts worry schools are unprepared to meet all of the needs.

On Tuesday, the U.S. surgeon general warned that the pandemic appears to have exacerbated mental health problems among youth: Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent girls, for example, were 51 percent higher in early 2021 than in early 2019.

Whitson is a founding member and the executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. She said the counseling field was understaffed even before COVID-19, and the gap grew wider as older school counselors retired early during the pandemic.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one school counselor. This recommendation has been in place since 1965, but many states and districts still don’t meet it. During the 2019-2020 school year, the national student-counselor ratio averaged 424 to 1, and it’s even more skewed in some states: California, Michigan, and Minnesota all reported ratios of more than 600 to 1. Arizona logged a whopping 848 students for every school counselor. Such high caseloads can prevent counselors from proactively identifying at-risk students. “It’s almost like urgent care,” Whitson said. “Next, next, next.”

Traumatic situations that students usually face fall under 10 general categories—termed “adverse childhood experiences”—defined in studies by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; substance abuse or mental illness in the household; parental separation or divorce; an incarcerated family member; domestic violence; and emotional or physical neglect. But this list is not exhaustive. Mental health professionals recognize children can experience trauma from other situations such as natural disasters or school shootings, like last week’s shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan.

In 2016, the American School Counselor Association reported 46 million children see violence, crime, or abuse annually. Statistics from the same year show that nearly half of all children have lived through an adverse childhood experience, according to the National Education Association. Whitson said COVID-19 has likely exacerbated the numbers of children experiencing trauma. “We know there’s more,” she said. “We don’t know what is there, but I think we should approach it as if we’re in a crisis.”

Children who have experienced trauma can struggle with memory, cognition, and other learning challenges, according to Lezya Weglarz of the California Association of School Counselors. These students may also face problems with reading comprehension and staying focused in class, a Mental Health America fact sheet reports.

“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,” said Shannon Underwood, a middle-school counselor and president-elect of the Michigan School Counselor Association. “There is no room in there for your brain to calm down so that you can learn. … You could have the best curriculum in the whole world, and it’s really not going to do you any good if a student is in crisis.”

It isn’t always easy for schools to identify who needs extra help. What many teachers interpret as behavioral problems could actually be signs of deeper struggles with fear or trauma. On the other end of the spectrum, model students could just be trying to please the adults around them out of fear.

“The acting-out kid is easy to find,” Whitson said. “But it’s the acting-in students, the ones that are maybe disheveled, sleep in class, disengaged, sit alone at the lunch counter … those are difficult to know.”

The effects of trauma can be lifelong. The CDC-Kaiser research shows adverse childhood experiences can lead to higher risks of social, emotional, or cognitive impairment; disease; disability; and even an early death.

Whitson said that, as a Christian, she has always felt a calling to help families struggling with trauma. “There’s plenty of Christians working in the educational field who believe very similarly that this is a mission,” she said. She noted Christians can support society by helping kids be “grounded in being healthy.”

Sometimes that involves meeting the most basic needs. Whitson said that a student contacted a counselor over a weekend because her family had no food. The counselor had said she could call if she needed anything. The counselor sent the family food through GrubHub. “This is what we do,” Whitson said.

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.


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