Schools are struggling to provide staff for the youth mental health crisis

Mira Ugwuadu was feeling anxious and depressed when she returned to her high school in Cobb County, Georgia last fall after months of distance learning and sought help. But her school counselor kept rescheduling her meetings because she had so many students to see.

“I felt helpless and alone,” said the 12th grader later.

Despite an influx of COVID-19 relief funds, school districts across the country are struggling to hire staff to meet student mental health needs that have only grown since the pandemic.

Of 18 of the nation’s largest school districts, 12 started this school year with fewer counselors or psychologists than they did in fall 2019, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat. As a result, many mental health professionals in schools have case counts that experts and advocates say far exceed recommended limits, and the students have to wait for urgently needed help.

Some of the additional support needs have been filled by social workers — their ranks have grown nearly 50% since before the pandemic, federal data shows — but they have different clinical training than other mental health professionals and many other responsibilities, including support of families . The districts included in the analysis, which serve a total of 3 million students, began the year with nearly 1,000 unfilled mental health positions.

Difficulty recruiting is largely to blame, but some school systems have invested aid money in other priorities. For example, Cobb County did not add any new advisors.

“They deal with so many students,” said Mira, 17. “Personally, I don’t want to blame them. But I also deserve care and support.”

A spokesman for Cobb County Public Schools said the school counselor positions are based on a federal funding formula and the district strongly supports more funding.

Chalkbeat analysis is based on school staff and job vacancy data obtained through open record requests. The 31 largest counties in the US were surveyed, but some did not collect or provide data.

Some school systems used state aid money to hire mental health staff, but others didn’t because they worried they could not afford them once the aid ran out. Districts have limited time to spend the nearly $190 billion allocated for recovery.

“Here’s this conundrum we’re in,” said Christy McCoy, president of the School Social Work Association of America. “It’s like we’re trying to put a band-aid on something that requires a more comprehensive and integrated approach.”

Many of the schools that wanted to hire more mental health professionals just can’t find them. School psychologist positions are particularly difficult to fill.

Chicago, for example, has added 32 school psychologist positions since the fall of 2019, but only has one additional psychologist on staff this fall. Dozens of positions could not be filled.

Schools in Hillsborough County, Fla., have eliminated dozens of vacant psychologist positions, leaving schools with 33 fewer psychologists this fall than before the pandemic. Houston schools have also eliminated more than a dozen psychologist positions they were unable to fill before the pandemic. Instead, the district used the money to pay outside providers and hire psychologist interns.

With their expanded training, school psychologists rely on them to provide intensive one-on-one counseling and help determine if students are at risk for suicide.

In Maryland, a shortage of psychologists at Montgomery County public schools has led the understaffed department to focus on crisis intervention and providing statutory services like special education assessments, said Christina Connolly-Chester, director of psychological services. This has left them unable to keep up with other, less urgent, counseling services.

“If this psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and he can’t spend as much time in the schools he’s assigned, things like counseling go away,” she said.

The district tried to hire staff to meet the students’ increased needs, such as anxiety, depression and struggles with conflict management, but still had 30 vacancies for psychologists, a district official said this month.

Even before the pandemic, some schools were struggling to find psychologists. New practitioners have not entered the field quickly enough, and others have switched to telemedicine or private practices with higher pay and often better working conditions.

“We can’t afford to pay professionals enough to make them a desirable position,” said Sharon Hoover, a psychologist who co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland.

Staffing for advisors has also been a challenge for some districts, as nine of the major districts reduced the number of advisors this year while another nine increased positions.

Where recruitment has been most difficult, schools have turned to alternatives. In Hawaii, where there were 31 counseling vacancies and 20 vacancies as a psychologist earlier this year, the state has trained educators to spot signs a student is in distress — an increasingly common practice – and pays a private company to provide elemental health services.

It’s not just hiring challenges that have led to lower-than-expected increases in staffing. Some school systems spent most of their federal aid on more permanent investments, such as technology or building repairs. And many chose not to hire new psychiatrists at all.

In the Chalkbeat analysis, half of the 18 major districts have budgeted fewer counselor or psychologist positions this school year than they did in the fall of 2019.

Only in April 4 out of 10 districts reported hiring new staff to address the mental health needs of students, according to a national survey.

“With all the talk about mental health, the actual money they’re spending on it isn’t that great,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University that tracks school spending. According to the group’s analysis of more than 5,000 district spending plans, school districts planned to spend only about 2% of the largest round of federal COVID relief on mental health cessations.

However, one bright spot in the schools mental health landscape is the rise of social workers.

Montgomery County in Maryland, Gwinnett County in Georgia and Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida started the year with dozens more social workers than in fall 2019. Chicago added the most — in part nearly 150 additional social workers due to staffing commitments in the last teachers’ union contract.

The Chalkbeat analysis echoes national data collected by the White House, which shows the number of school social workers has increased by 48% this fall compared to before the pandemic, while the number of school counselors has increased by a more modest 12% and the number of School psychologists increased by 4%.

In Houston, staffing increases meant nearly every school started with a counselor or social worker this fall.

Newly hired social worker Natalie Rincon can meet face-to-face with students in crisis and teach other students calming strategies such as:

Still, needs often exceed capacity at Rincon’s school, where many students are refugees or recent immigrants coping with trauma. She often has to prioritize students with urgent issues, leaving her less time to attend to others.

“I want to be able to meet up with a kindergarten kid just to talk about how they’re doing,” Rincon said. “Those are the things that I think are slipping through the cracks.”

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Ma oversees education and justice for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. The Associated Press’s coverage of race and ethnicity issues is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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