More school counselors could turn the tide on the youth mental health crisis — Commentary: Cameka Hazel

More than 130 children’s organizations recently called on President Biden to declare a national emergency in response to America’s youth mental health crisis. This news comes just days after a group of experts recommended that all children between the ages of eight and 18 receive routine screenings for anxiety.

These developments brought new attention to a worsening situation. Yet too often, concrete strategies to improve youth mental health are missing from the discussion.

One of these strategies should be the widening of access to educational guidance.

School counselors are trained to help K-12 students achieve their goals by addressing academic, career development, emotional, and social challenges. These professionals have a skill set that goes beyond helping students manage classroom conflict and preparing for college. They also have the training to recognize the warning signs of mental health.
School counselors can be a critical line of defense against worsening mental health issues. And yet, they remain too rare, especially in schools that serve poor and marginalized communities. We need more school counsellors.
It is undeniable that Covid-19 has had a tragic impact on the well-being of young people. Between 2016 and 2021, mental health-related hospital admissions for those under 20 jumped 61%, according to a recent analysis by the Clarify Health Institute.
But this decline in mental health began before the pandemic. A JAMA Pediatrics study published in 2019 found that nearly 8 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 reported at least one mental health problem.
The many causes of depression and anxiety in young people include cyberbullying, traumatic experiences, marginalization, and school shootings. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of all American teenagers now fear a shooting will happen at their own school.
School counselors could help stop these heartbreaking trends. But around a fifth of all K-12 students don’t have access to counseling at their school.
While the American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, the national average ratio is about one to 400 — and in some states it’s one to more than 600. At least 20 states n don’t even have a school trustee mandate on the books. Black and low-income students are more likely than their peers to lack sufficient access.

But even those numbers underestimate the seriousness of the advisor shortage. This is because the types of guidance school counselors provide can vary widely. In secondary schools, in particular, the counselor’s role is often confined to studies and planning for college education – with little emphasis on the emotional and social well-being of students.
If we are to have any hope of reversing the alarming deterioration in young people’s mental health, we must improve access to school counsellors. The federal government has provided several rounds of emergency relief funds to schools since the start of the pandemic, some of which have gone to mental health. In October, the Biden administration released an additional $280 million for this purpose.
These funds are a good start, but we need more action. Nationally, all schools should be required to provide counseling services to their students and maintain appropriate counselor-to-student ratios. And at the state level, curriculum designers should incorporate social and emotional learning as standard practice for K-12 students.
The youth mental health crisis is all around us. Expanding access to school counselors could make these tragedies much less common, while providing students with the support, guidance and care they need to thrive.

Cameka Hazel is an assistant professor for the Master of Science in School Counseling program at the New York Institute of Technology. This article originally appeared in Salon.

More school counselors could turn the tide on the youth mental health crisis — Commentary: Cameka Hazel

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