How a counselor shortage is hurting students struggling with anxiety, depression

·8 min read

On a typical school day at Miami Lakes Educational Center, kids rush to and from classes as others gather to eat in the cafeteria. Gabriella Fuster, an 18-year old senior, enters the bathroom. She walks into a stall and closes the door behind her.

Then she cries.

“I'll hide in there for a good 10, 15 minutes,” Fuster said.

As most students have returned to in-person learning following the restrictions issued during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking time to cry in the bathroom for a few minutes has become the norm for students at her school, Fuster said.

It’s so common that when students return to the classroom with tear tracks still visible on their faces, teachers immediately understand.

“The teachers usually know that you weren't just messing around,” she said.

It feels like the bathroom stalls have become a substitute for the counselor's office, Fuster said, partly because the school, like many around the U.S., is struggling to hire enough counselors to help students.

School counselor retention was already a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to mental health experts. They said it's only gotten worse in recent years because students who were isolated at home and saw their friends and family get sick or die from COVID-19 lacked support to deal with the trauma and are still trying to cope in any way they can.

Gabriella Fuster, a senior at Miami Lakes Education Center, said teachers are understanding when their students experience poor mental health at school.
Gabriella Fuster, a senior at Miami Lakes Education Center, said teachers are understanding when their students experience poor mental health at school.

“We've definitely seen students across the nation express more feelings of stress and more feelings of anxiety,” said Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and the former chair of the American School Counselor Association. “Just feeling kind of out of control feelings of fear, of the unknown.”

Congress and state legislatures have tried to help by allocating millions of dollars in funding for hiring mental health counselors, but schools have faced multiple, complex struggles.

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For schools in under-resourced communities, finding enough counselors has always been a challenge. The American School Counselor Association recommends that schools have no more than 250 students per counselor. But only 4.2% of schools located in city centers meet that recommendation. Suburban schools are twice as likely to do so, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy.

“When you don't already have resources to be able to support what was happening before the pandemic, and you don't pump any more into the communities to support those after the pandemic, then those gaps are going to increase,” said Kent Butler, a professor in counselor education at the University of Central Florida.

Schools struggle to find enough counselors

One of the biggest challenges facing schools is finding enough qualified counselors to hire. Despite increased government funding, there’s a supply and demand issue in the school counseling field that existed long before COVID-19 hit, experts said.

Jobs in mental health counseling are expected to grow 23% in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there aren’t enough students in the pipeline to meet that increased demand, partly because of the extensive training and multiple degrees and certifications required to become a counselor. Also, many programs require students to perform a year of unpaid training, an economic barrier for many.

That scarcity is so severe that Nikki Poindexter Ham, president of the Maryland School Counselor Association, said she doubled her recruitment efforts over the past year-and-a-half. She has increased the number of visits she makes to high schools and colleges where she encourages students to become counselors.

At the same time, Americans are becoming more receptive to mental health as a legitimate problem that requires professional help. About 87% of Americans say that mental illness is “nothing to be ashamed of,” according to a 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association.

And yet, schools are persistently struggling to serve students' mental health needs, advocates said.

Jennifer Rothman is a senior manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest alliance of local mental health organizations, but even she has struggled to find a counselor for her daughter.

“It can be very difficult,” she said. “There are shortages all around for that.”

In Florida's Miami-Dade County, the school district used $14.2 million to hire 20 mental health coordinators and 100 part-time mental health professionals to respond to the growing needs of its students due to the pandemic. Next it has plans to hire an additional counselor for each school.

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But the district remains far below the ratio of one counselor for every 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association. At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Miami-Dade’s ratio was 454 to 1.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools strives to meet the mental health needs of students in a timely fashion,” the district said in a statement. “School counselors are onsite daily, while school psychologists, school social workers, and mental health coordinators spend one day a week at a given school.”

Schools could use counselors more efficiently

In addition to the shortage of counselors, Butler said existing counselors too often face setbacks on the job.

“School districts don't know how to use a school counselor,” he said. “We don't utilize their God-given skills.”

School counselors generally fall into three categories, according to Butler. Some help students with their day-to-day academics, some help them with college applications and scholarships, and some are dedicated to the well-being of students. The last groups are often called guidance counselors and can help with issues like mental health, family problems, or addictions.

But Butler said counselors are generally not allowed to cross over into different areas. So, for example, academic counselors are not allowed to discuss family or legal problems with their students, he said.

He also said many schools use counselors for administrative work, such as class scheduling, which limits their ability to counsel students. As a result, students are left with fewer people to turn to for mental health counseling.

To address these issues, Butler said schools need to allow academic counselors to provide mental health counseling, so long as they’re qualified to do so. In addition, schools need to assign only counseling tasks to their counselors.

School districts provide their own counselor training

To address the obstacles facing school counseling departments, many districts around the country have been forced to get creative.

In Florida's Broward County, the school district started its own counselor training program. Using a $2 million federal grant, the district trained 20 social workers and mental health counselors to work in their schools over the past year.

In Georgia's Gwinnett County, schools are placing a higher emphasis on the use of S.E.L., or social-emotional learning, a program that teaches students and teachers the basics of mental health and how to identify problems that need to be referred to a counselor.

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“Every adult in the building has a part of supporting S.E.L, whether you're doing it formally through your instruction, or integrating it through your instructional strategies, or whether you are modeling it as a bus driver or as a custodian or as a cafeteria worker,” said Parker, the Gwinnett County administrator.

Several school districts around the country are considering allowing students to take a “mental health day” as an excused absence. That is already in place in Oregon, Illinois and parts of Maryland, and more schools have become interested during the pandemic.

In Maryland, several school districts have been encouraging students to counsel other students. Poindexter Ham, of the Maryland School Counselor Association, said those peer counseling programs help offset the lack of professional counselors and provide students with someone they can relate to.

“It’s identifying ... teens to really be that connection and that support for other teens and really reaching out and helping,” she said.

All these efforts may one day improve the lack of access to adequate mental health services plaguing the nation’s schools, but students say they’re not yet seeing results.

Fuster, the Miami Lakes senior, said she sees her classmates struggling constantly. She tries to help when she can, but she’s also aware that she’s not a trained therapist. So she’s hoping that students in her school, and others, get the help they need sooner than later.

“A lot of kids at my school ... suffer from intense anxiety,” she said. “And when I'm feeling like I want to cry in the bathroom ... I would like to be able to go to the counselor's office and feel safe and secure and cry in there instead.”

Cortes, Moore and Souffrant are high school students at Luella High School in Locust Grove, Georgia, North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, and Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. They were participants in Urban Health Media Project’s reporting workshop on pandemic student mental health in fall of 2021. Urban Health Media Project student Melissa Noda contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School counselor shortage hurts students with anxiety, depression