The prevalence of mental illness in children has reached an all time high, and it’s a public health issue that up until recently has been widely ignored. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ¹ an estimated 1 in 5 children are diagnosed with “mental disorders such as ADHD, Tourette syndrome, behavioral issues, mood and anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders, or substance abuse disorders.”
Left undiagnosed or untreated, children’s mental disorders can cause a number of problems both at home and in the classroom, affecting the way children learn, behave, and handle their emotions. Despite this, nearly 80 percent of adolescents who would benefit from mental health treatment do not receive it, and this disproportionately affects children of color and the uninsured.²
This gap in treatment for students can be explained by a number of factors. Counselors, parents, and teachers are constantly battling with challenges that include mental health stigma, budget constraints, inadequate insurance coverage, and availability of mental health services in the community.³
For students who do receive a diagnosis, schools are often the first providers of mental health resources. 4
The Role of the School Counselor
Throughout the week, many students spend more time in the classroom than they spend with their parents. As such, teachers, counselors, and other school staff are among the first to notice concerning changes in behavior that could signal a mental or behavioral health issue.
While teachers arguably spend the most time with their students, a study by the research journal School Psychology Quarterly found that a mere 34 percent of teachers surveyed felt that they had the skills needed to identify mental health issues in students and find resources for students with mental health conditions. 5
As such, school counselors become a crucial part of the education team, collaborating with teachers, administrators, parents, and social workers to ensure that each student receives the care and resources necessary to succeed in their academic and personal lives. 6
School counselors allocate much of their focus to designing and implementing programs which promote the academic and personal success for all of their students. These responsibilities include:
- Enhancing the awareness of mental health in their schools, and aiming to remove shame and stigma
- Provide external referrals, which may include short-term counseling or crisis intervention
- Recognize and respond to warning signs, such as sudden changes in grades or attendance, disciplinary problems, or visible problems at home
- Provide individual focus to students about issues surrounding their mental health, academic well being, and social and emotional needs
- Provide resources and support for teachers, administrators, and parents 7
Barriers to Mental Health Treatment
Counselors are a vital part of the educational team, and in an ideal world, children would have adequate access to school counselors. But when districts are confronted with budget cuts, counselors are often among the first to be laid off.
As it stands, the national student-to-counselor ratio is much higher than the average 250-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association. 8 At some schools, the student-to-counselor ratio is as high as 781:1. 9
Additionally, counselors must also operate based on the mental health services readily available in their communities, and not all communities are equally prepared to handle mental health concerns.
When left unmet, students mental health needs can pose serious barriers to social and educational development. Counselors are a necessary part of an educational staff, as they have the unique qualifications required to provide education, intervention, and referral services to children, parents, and teachers. Although school counselors typically do not act as long-term therapists, they help foster an environment where mental health stigma is erased, help bridge the gap between student and community resources, and make sure the developmental needs of all students are met.
Students who obtain their Master’s Degree in Counseling from Wake Forest University Online enter the field prepared to help students, parents, and teachers manage student mental health.