Advocating for student mental health starts here

Advocating for student mental health starts here

With increased awareness of student mental health needs, many districts are examining how to elevate the impact of school counselors

Key points:

  • It is imperative for school leaders to understand the dire need for student mental health support
  • Partnering with a care coordination service can help bridge mental health support gaps
  • See related article: Why student and teacher wellness comes first

For the last 17 years, I have devoted my career to advocating for comprehensive school counseling programs. This is my passion and the focus of my efforts every day. But I did not choose this career path because I had an amazing school counselor in middle school. In fact, it’s the opposite. I did not have access to a school counselor at all. I was in the academic middle and did not need school counseling. Right? WRONG! I was desperate for guidance about my future and was overlooked due to the high student to counselor ratio.  

I do not want what happened to me to happen to other students. School counselors play a vital role in a school’s ecosystem–and it is absolutely paramount to ensure every student has access to the support they need–especially today. 

The latest data shows the ratio of students to school counselors is headed toward its lowest level in 36 years, with an average of 408 students for every counselor. While this is good news, and while I’m proud of the progress we’re making, it is still missing the mark, according to the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) recommendation of 250 students to one school counselor

With increased awareness of student mental health and the need for student support, many districts are asking themselves: How do we elevate the impact of our school counselors? Here’s how we achieved this at Livingston Middle School in rural California and my advice for other schools looking to improve school counselors’ reach and, in turn, boost student outcomes.  

Understanding the need for student mental health support 

Shortly after we returned to the classroom after the pandemic shutdowns, it became extremely apparent that many of the students at my school were facing serious mental health challenges. I was one of two school counselors at the 800-student middle school and we were used to supporting about 30 students on an ongoing basis.

Upon returning to school, nearly one-quarter of our student population was requesting support from a school counselor — up 566 percent from pre-pandemic levels. We certainly did our best to be there for every student but, in reality, the need far exceeded what we could provide. 

The challenges our students were facing were also very different across grades. Students had just spent a year in a remote learning environment and many were struggling to connect and build relationships again. We also saw more students who were anxious, worried, and fearful. Even though there was a collective sense of grief and trauma, we were determined to use this moment to make a lasting impact on our school and community. 

Engaging in advocacy 

Since I came to Livingston in 2006, the district has always been focused on student mental health. As the lead school counselor, I was given a seat at the table with leadership and that enabled me to take an extremely proactive approach when discussing the benefits of school counselors with administrators. I shared ASCA position papers to set the stage, and shared the latest data to illustrate the importance of school counselors in academics, mental health, and overall student success. At the meetings, we all listened to each other and it was collectively determined that we needed more student mental health support. 

At this time, the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) funding came in and my school allocated funds toward school counselors and services. We received the opportunity to expand and build a program that supports every student–the high-achieving, low-achieving, and students in the academic middle. For the first time in my career as a school counselor, I felt like we had the support to adequately serve all of our students and connect with the community. 

Bridging the support gap 

As one of two school counselors at the school, I quickly realized we were going to need additional resources to meet the vast needs of our middle school students. I received an email from a company that specializes in helping schools navigate the mental health care system. By joining forces with this company, Care Solace, known for care coordination services for K-12 school districts, we extended our student support footprint and increased our impact on the students at Livingston. 

Our partnership opportunity with a care coordination service also expanded access to school counseling through telehealth and hybrid options. It opened up more doors for our students to get help–no matter where they were–when they needed it most.  

Elevating school counselor impact 

With access to additional resources, my school and our district now have a go-to source to power up our commitment to mental health care for our students, staff and their families. Not only have we invigorated our school’s existing support structures, but we are also providing students referrals to providers for needs that exceed the scope of our services. In a rural area with limited resources, this is absolutely essential and creates even more opportunities for student mental health care and support. 

Thanks to the support of our district team and community, we have doubled down on our commitment to the social-emotional wellness of students at Livingston and expanded our dedicated school counselor team to six. We have continually demonstrated the benefits of school counselors and are ultimately improving student outcomes through our efforts every day.  

Even though I can’t go back to middle school and seek out the school counselor I wanted so badly, I can continue to focus on my mission of increasing awareness of school counselors’ impact and the crucial role they play in the big picture. Our students are counting on us, and their success depends on it. Let’s give them the support they need and develop school counselor programs that make a difference. 

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