Why School Psychologists Are Worried About the Mental Health of America’s Students

Earlier this month, thousands of school psychologists met in Atlanta at the annual convention of the National Association of School Psychologists. One of the hottest topics among attendees was exhaustion — a consequence of having to serve more students who are experiencing more trauma and other mental health problems without more help in carrying the load.

It’s not just school psychologists who are concerned about being short-staffed. I know of far too many school counselors, social workers, and nurses who are serving more students than any practitioner can reasonably handle. Their impossible caseloads result in not only work overload and the risk of burnout but also an alarming number of young people not getting the help they need.

For the past several years, members of the school psychologist community have been raising concerns about the detrimental under-investments in school-employed mental health staff — and a new report from the ACLU adds further data to the extent of the problem. “Cops and No Counselors,” co-authored by me and six other experts, analyzed data that the U.S. Department of Education collected from every school district in the nation. We found that the majority of K-12 schools are ill-equipped to address the mental health needs of children who are experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression during their formative years.

Children today are reporting just as much stress as adults, with 1 in 3 reporting that they are feeling depressed. Suicide, once on the decline as a risk for young people, is now one of the leading causes of death among youth, second only to accidents. Many of the kids I personally work with have one thing in common: significant trauma histories.

Take the student who accidentally shot his friend when the gun they were playing with discharged. Or the boy whose parents have both been incarcerated since he was young and who has bounced from foster home to foster home, separated from his siblings during these transitions.  

These students are in pain. They’re acting out. And they’re often in schools that can’t address their needs because of the lack of mental health support on site.  

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a school psychologist serve no more than 500-700 students. But the ACLU report reveals that school psychologists across the country serve more than 1,500 students on average. Given that only around 20 percent of youth access mental health services — and, of those who do, around 80 percent get these services in schools — it’s unacceptable that nearly half of schools report having no school psychologist on staff whatsoever.  

Rather than helping students suffering from stress and depression by investing in adequate support, precious resources have been diverted toward “hardening” schools, including hiring law enforcement personnel who may not be properly trained to work in schools. This approach has been pushed by the Trump administration and many state governments after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, but there is no reliable evidence that embedding police in schools makes children any safer. Yet 14 million students attend a school with a police officer but no school counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker, as the ACLU report found. This is the epitome of misplaced priorities and the foundation of a crisis.

Because schools are spending money on police officers who may not be appropriately equipped to serve in schools rather than on support services, millions of students don’t receive services to help them cope with their emotional or behavioral issues. Instead, they are subjected to excessive security measures like metal detectors, where the message sent is that they are either at risk for becoming victims or at risk for being criminals. This approach pushes the most vulnerable students out of schools, making it more likely that they will fall behind academically and become further disengaged.  

To be clear, properly trained school resource officers (SROs), who have received the training recommended by the National Association of School Resource Officers, can be effective members of school teams. But they are a complement to mental health services and not a substitute for mental health professionals.  

The documented benefits of employing school psychologists and other school mental health practitioners are numerous — lower disciplinary rates, improved school climate, more consistent attendance, higher graduation rates, and greater academic achievement. These professionals, who have specialized training in both learning and mental health, understand how to maximize service delivery within the school context, support teachers’ ability to support students, and improve overall school climate and student well-being.

On the other hand, having police officers in schools, who are trained in the use of weapons and enforcement tactics, can make trauma responses worse. We’ve seen this play out in schools across the country, from North Carolina to Louisiana. Black, Latino, and Native American students bear the brunt of the consequences, getting referred to law enforcement more often than their white peers. Students with disabilities are disproportionately criminalized as well.

Let’s hope that lawmakers move to change this trend before it’s too late. Only three months into 2019, state legislatures nationwide have proposed nearly 250 bills to enhance school security, and the pattern is disconcerting: emergency preparedness and funding for on-campus police officers (without requirements for appropriate training to work in schools) top many lists. While schools need improved threat assessments and crisis response, they also need more funding for mental health services. What we don’t need are more hardening measures like metal detectors, minimally trained law enforcement, and armed teachers. We know that metal detectors can’t detect abuse.  

School resource officers, with the right training, can be helpful in addressing depression or suicidal thoughts. But ultimately, identifying and treating these issues is the fundamental job of school psychologists and other mental health staff. It’s up to all of us to make sure that every child has their needs met and goes out into the world with a fighting chance.  

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Anonymous

Teaching is a real job and that's a really rude comment. I'd like to know what kind of job you do? I help with an after-school program . I'm ones of the best teachers there are across my whole County I've put thousands of my own dollars back into the program and even ran a circus for children so they could build self-esteem. I'm not sure what you consider a real job. But I've dedicated my life to helping children for three decades now so take your rudeness and go someplace else.

Teacher in the ...

Public schools have become centers where high concentrations of children with poverty, special needs, and poor parenting merge. Teachers and other school professionals cannot remediate or elevate pupils by themselves. As taxpayers divest themselves from providing resources to schools, the downward spiral intensifies. Undercapitalized companies go out of business. Why would you expect different results for schools?

Anonymous

I think the unnecessary seriousness of formal testing ias required by the State, is intimidating and as well as boring to elementary kids. The proctors use timing, down to the second, for starting and stopping the actual tests. The whole group of sudents are asked to sit silently, without breaks, or anything to do for long periods of time while waiting for a few kids to finish, when the actual information tested is minimal. The process is painful ,time consuming and offputting. Informal checks on acquired knowledge during the routine of the class is probably more accurate. Certainly it is less painful for the kids and adults...

Anonymous

This is one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever read.

Daily observer ...

Even if it is social media impact. The internet and social media is not going away anytime soon. So, what is the alternative to support, minimize and help resolve these issues amongst our children. What about young depressed children, kindergartener or fisrt graders, they fist get label as bad, parents not doing enough or some behavioral tag, that all teachers will use against them. Instead of truly trying to help them. These issues are more than just internet, children that days are very adult minded, very in a rush to get to a place of adulthood without having barely getting through childhood. Psychologist, psychiatrist, counselors, therapists are all overwhelmed and have become money business driven more than they are care driven. 15 min/30min appointment slots are not enough to evaluate kids status. Lengthy return appointment, no access to them during a time of emergency or even for a return call is almost useless for parents to have these therapies relationship going.
This is a huge culture shift and need and it's important that society really narrow in on better resources for these type of needs. Blaming the internet does nor bring a resolution.
More therapeutic care for children in school. More psychologists and counselors involvement, each school should have multiple on hand daily. Or incorporate volunteers efforts from college student who are in the field. Stop abusing the children in school. Treating them very indifferent and expecting that each child knows they are being what you dream disrespectful.

Anonymous

My husband committed suicide by police due to bipolar disorder. this country does not support mental health it does not help people with mental health and mental health problems are on the rise due to the internet and the overabundance of negativity on the internet that were exposed to constantly. I say meditate turn off the computer get out enjoy nature and your friends and go speak to a therapist or read self-help books. We need to also help our children. I work with children and I even have found children to be stressed, have anxiety and depression that are ages 9 and 10 years old. We need to become a better country, we're failing our citizens at rapid speed.

Anonymous

This article is completely narrow-sighted, and does not give a compelling argument against law enforcement placement at schools, just shows a bitterness and a true lack of understanding of why they are there to begin with. This article completely misses the mark for me. It’s comparing apples and oranges. It’s the school and cities responsibility to protect the students and personnel from outside threats, it’s the teachers, faculty and staff’s responsiblity to protect against inside threats. I would assert that the real reason is there aren’t enough school phsychologists to go around. I would further assert that the pay just doesn’t cover the debt incurred after all the schooling is done. I think the author needs to revisit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Anonymous

Somehow, narrow-minded or short-sighted didn't work for you?

Anonymous

It has a lot to do with electronics that these children are exposed to now. TV is bad for them and the screen time is crazy. It affects their mood and their sleep and their work and their all around behavior. Kids need to get outside more and parents need to get them out more. It causes them to have ADD and other affects. Anger issues and attention problems and stress more and they can’t handle life. I know first hand because my ex husband dealt with being put in front of a tv his whole life and it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. He screams and yells for no reason and it affected his speech. Take your kids outside it’s healthier. Sun is great for the brain!

Anonymous

It might be the food dyes that make stuff kids eat look cool will color, doesn't explain your husband though.

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