Counselor wants help addressing students’ mental health needs 

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Q:  I’m a school counselor in a large public middle school, and in the last few years I’ve seen an uptick in the number of students with serious mental health needs. I’m talking about four or five kids in my caseload who end up utilizing 30% of my time. The other counselors in my school are dealing with the same thing. These students have complicated needs, and we can’t just brush them aside. I’ve been having an ongoing debate with my principal and other administrators. I think we need to be doing more on the front end to teach stress reduction skills, but in an all-hands-on-deck kind of way. This issue is too big for counselors to manage on their own, unless they clone us or take all the meaningless paperwork off our plates. I’m thinking we could address mental health issues in more depth in health classes, and get all teachers some training so they can each teach at least one lesson per semester on coping strategies. My department would write those lessons. I’m just trying to think outside the box yet stay realistic. Teachers already are tasked with so many mandates, from testing to bus duty to staff meetings, so I’m a little afraid to bring this up with them, but we’re just drowning. We have no time for prevention because we’re so overwhelmed with these high-needs kids. How can I get support from the rest of the staff so that we’re working together to prevent and address problems?  

A:  I’m not surprised by your experience. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 22% of 13- to 18-year-olds have a serious mental illness. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people.  

Some states are taking action. Most notably, a law recently took effect in New York that requires mental health issues to be included in the health education curriculum. It’s the first state to pass such a law, and the intention is to give students the knowledge they need to recognize in themselves and others when they need help. And even in the absence of state laws, many school districts across the country are being similarly proactive. 

So your question is timely, but it’s not easily answered. Many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching this topic at all, let alone helping kids who have complicated diagnoses. They’re not trained professionals. That said, they can play an important role as eyes and ears on the ground, looking for signs that students are in distress and making referrals to counseling as needed. (And as schools teach students how to help themselves and their friends, they can help play this role as well.) But the reality is that teachers, like counselors, have a million boxes to check. Unless something eases up, you’re going to get pushback. So be careful to identify “asks” that don’t require any heavy lifting or special expertise. I like your idea of preparing the lessons, for example, and I do think that would help with buy-in, especially if the lessons are scheduled for a time of day that doesn’t interfere with teaching their content area. 

Keep in mind that teachers do care about students’ mental health, and some may be willing to identify themselves as someone kids can approach when they’re feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. There may also be some teachers who’d want to join a committee dedicated to thinking about this issue in more depth. In particular, health teachers might be natural partners, and they may already be doing lessons that align with your goals, so make sure you’re familiar with their curriculum. Any procedural changes will have to come from an administrator, though. I’d view your role as exploratory, not directive. 

Also, look for ways to make this a whole-school effort — and think beyond teachers. Anyone in the building could be a student’s trusted adult, including administrators, cafeteria workers, paraeducators, building service workers, and security personnel. Partner with parents, too. Many will share your concerns, and they might be interested in forming a wellness committee, funding teacher training, or helping establish mindfulness, yoga, or other stress-reduction programs in your school.  

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.orgAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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