Schools struggle to meet students’ mental health needs

School systems in the United States are struggling to find workers to address the mental health needs of students. Mental health problems among students have worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chalkbeat found that among 18 of the nation’s largest school districts, 12 started the school year this fall with fewer counselors or psychologists than they had in the fall of 2019.

As a result, many school mental health professionals have to work with a large caseload that exceeds recommended limits, experts say. Many students have to wait for urgently needed help.

Part of the additional need for support is taken up by social workers. The number of social workers has grown by nearly 50 percent since before the pandemic, national data shows. But social workers have different training than other mental health professionals and have different responsibilities.

School areas included in the study serve a total of 3 million students. They started the year with nearly 1,000 vacant mental health positions.

The Chalkbeat data is based on school personnel data obtained through open records requests. The 31 largest US counties were surveyed, but some did not measure or provide data.

School systems across the U.S. have received money from the federal government to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some districts have used the money to add mental health workers. But others did not. They worried about paying them after the aid money ran out. Districts have limited time to spend nearly $190 billion in recovery money.

Many schools that wanted to hire more mental health workers simply couldn’t find them. School psychologist positions are particularly difficult to fill. Through their training, school psychologists provide individual counseling and support to students who are at risk of suicide.

In Maryland, there is a severe shortage of psychologists in Montgomery County Public Schools. The district has maintained a psychology department focused on crisis prevention and providing legally required services such as special education grades, said Christina Connolly-Chester. She is the regional director of the psychological service. This means they cannot handle other, less urgent counseling services.

Natalie Rincon poses for a photo outside an elementary school in Houston, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The district is looking to hire workers to help students who have anxiety or depression or struggle with conflict. But there are still 30 psychologist positions open, a district official said this month.

Even before the pandemic, some schools were struggling to find psychologists. New psychologists are not entering the field fast enough.

IN Chalkbeat analysishalf of the 18 largest districts budgeted for fewer counselor or psychologist positions this school year than they did in fall 2019.

“Regardless of all the talk about mental health, the actual money they spend on it is not that high,” Phyllis Jordan said. She is with FutureEd at Georgetown University in Washington. The group measures the cost of schooling. School districts plan to spend only about 2 percent of the largest round of federal COVID aid on hiring people with mental health conditions, the group found.

However, there is an increase among social workers.

The Chalkbeat the analysis found that the number of school social workers increased by 48 percent this fall compared to before the pandemic. The number of school counselors increased by 12 percent, and the number of school psychologists increased by only 4 percent.

In Houston, Texas, increased hiring meant nearly every school started this fall with a counselor or social worker.

Newly hired social worker Natalie Rincon is able to meet one-on-one with students who are in crisis and teach other students ways to ease anxiety.

Still, workers are unable to meet all the needs at Rincon’s school. She often has to help students with urgent problems, leaving less time to check on others.

“I want to be able to meet with a child in kindergarten to talk about how they’re feeling,” Rincon said. “These are the things I think slipping through the cracks.”

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reports from the Associated Press.

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Words in this story

a psychologist – n. a scientist who specializes in the study and treatment of the mind and behavior

Evaluation – n. the act of making a judgment about something

slipping through the cracks — an idiom be overlooked or ignored

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