There’s nothing so personal. So painful. So well-hidden as mental illness. I know of what I speak. I lost my husband, my high school sweetheart, to suicide some years ago. He struggled longer than any of us had a clue. By the time the truth of the depth of his illness came flowing out, he had lost all the hope in his heart.
September is that reminder for me and millions like me who have lost loved ones to suicide to take courage. It’s a reminder to those who struggle every day to keep their heads above the flood of their pain to try to find the courage to keep breathing and swim to safety.
And for educators, it is a month to embrace a special responsibility we have to be lifeguards, aware of the mental health needs of our sometimes-fragile students.
Today, our students are facing such stress, such fear. They need us more and more. We all need that village of education professionals who are the first responders in emergencies.
And so, one must ask: Why—in these troubling times—aren’t essential education professionals like school guidance counselors lifted up and seen for the lifesavers that they are?
The guidance counselor’s work has never been more important. One out of 5 students ages 13 to 18 has or will develop a mental health condition. Thirty-seven percent of students 14 and over who have a condition will end up dropping out of school. Once they’ve cut ties with school, they are much less likely to get help.
Of the youth who take their own lives, 90 percent had an underlying mental illness. Often, their issue went undiagnosed and untreated.
We need to meet this crisis head-on. Many school districts, however, are undermining guidance counselors in critical ways.
Number one, they are cutting school counseling positions to save money. They don’t employ enough counselors (or other specialized instructional support personnel, including school psychologists and social workers) to meet the urgent demand for them.
The NEA as well as counseling, guidance, and mental health organizations recommend that schools maintain a maximum student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1. But the national average is actually double that.
Number two, school districts are sometimes forcing counselors to take on responsibilities in special education that they should not carry.
Counselors desperately want to support all students, and they recognize that students with disabilities are among the most vulnerable. But in some districts, guidance counselors must act outside their roles. For instance, they are providing long-term therapy or coordinating, writing, or supervising a student’s individualized education program (IEP). The IEP is essential to making good decisions for students with disabilities; it is designed for students who can’t follow the standard curriculum in the typical way.
These conditions can make it challenging for guidance counselors to build strong bonds with students through direct and consistent contact. That is how counselors help students make important life decisions, heal after a crisis, and begin to deal with mental health issues.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley’s Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would provide grants to states for employing more mental health services providers at schools. The NEA, the American School Counselor Association, National Association of School Psychologists, and National Parent Teacher Association, and other groups support this legislation, introduced this month in Congress. It would help us reach staffing levels that could make a big difference for students.
Ask guidance counselors why they’ve chosen this profession, and their answer is simple. They want help provide all students with the resources, information, and coping skills to succeed.
Our guidance counselors are humble people, and so they may not put it this way. But if you ask me and my family, they’ve chosen their profession to change the life–maybe even save the life–of somebody else’s child. We need our village lifesavers more than ever.
Thank Senator Merkley for seeing these heroes for who they are. And beg your senators and other members of Congress to support resources to improve mental health services in our schools.