How Counselors Can Help Students With Their Mental Health


When US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy this month released a public health advisory on protecting the mental health of young people, he called attention to the pervasive challenges facing young people today. . But he also stressed that these challenges are surmountable – and often avoidable.

One of his recommendations, as part of what he calls a “whole of society” effort to mitigate the corrosive effects of the pandemic on mental health, is to support student mental health in schools. schools.

What types of support systems do students have there? What can parents do about school counselors to manage, and when does a problem become something that needs extra help? Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County School Superintendent; Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Assn. school counselors; and Santa Ana Unified School District staff explain.

How it works?

Schools have a mix of counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses who work together as a mental health team on campus, Duardo said.

The team’s # 1 priority is to ensure that students can learn. This includes identifying and removing (or at least reducing) the barriers that prevent a child from receiving or absorbing education.

But it’s important to understand that all school employees are trained in how to identify distress in children, Duardo said.

“Because sometimes the kids don’t go to a counselor,” she said. “Maybe the first person they’ll talk to is their teacher or guardian, someone else they connect with.”

If a parent is concerned, Duardo recommends speaking to the teacher first. “They spend so much time with the kids in their classroom that they can see when something is wrong and a child is behaving differently than they usually do.”

The teacher will know what resources are available at the school and can direct parents to the appropriate person.

Here are the main roles on campus

Tasks can vary – and get confused – depending on the school and district. Middle and high schools tend to have more support than elementary schools, but this gap is narrowing.

School counselors

There are many types of school counselors.

Some are college or university counselors who help students organize their classes and plan for their future. There are also attendance counselors, who try to understand why some children do not show up for school. And there are counselors who are more clinically oriented. They may work in campus wellness centers and provide short-term care for students struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

Counselors can also provide support to parents and caregivers. Sometimes a parent needs advice on how to deal with a child who refuses to go to school. Sometimes students need help communicating something they are afraid to tell their parents, for example, if a student is pregnant or HIV positive.

“You can’t help a child without talking to the parent,” Duardo said.

School psychologists

While one might assume that psychologists are the ones who provide therapy in schools – and they can be – school psychologists are generally those who work with students with special needs. They help special education teachers develop individualized education plans and monitor progress.

School social workers

The role of school social workers may also vary. They are trained in crisis counseling and intervention. They could also work to help with a child’s life situation, help children with disabilities, or develop trauma-informed programs.

School nurses

Although nurses treat physical illnesses, these symptoms can often be related to mental health. If children get sick from not getting enough sleep or eating enough, it could be a sign of a mental health problem.

The goal is for all of these providers to work together and understand a more complete picture of a child’s difficulties. Then they can pass the baton – what schools call “warm transfers” – to the right person at each stage of a student’s need.

According to Sonia Llamas, assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, this process begins with the early identification of the problem and continues with intervention and coordination of care and services. And if a student must be hospitalized, the school must provide support to help the child return to campus.

What are the limits of school mental health systems?

School counselors have extremely heavy workloads. Although the American School Counselor Assn. recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor, the national average for the 2019-2020 school year was 424 students per counselor. California had a 601: 1 ratio.

When school counselors have such a heavy workload, they are forced to try to identify student issues very quickly so they can determine which cases they need to prioritize, Duardo said.

Many schools use a framework called a tiered support system. There are three levels which correspond to different levels of student needs. The majority of children are at level 1, which focuses on prevention. Level 2 is for children who require early intervention, which may take the form of group sessions. And level 3 is for children who need individualized care.

For the most part, schools offer short-term counseling, and if students need additional support, schools refer them to an agency or work with parents to see what type of therapy or other assistance is covered by their assurance. Care Solace, for example, works with 300 school districts to help connect families with mental health care providers.

What are some of the goals for the future?

Schools have made efforts over the years to offer more help to students and caregivers who ask for help. But they also try to do more to avoid problems by incorporating social and emotional learning lessons into the classroom. This includes teaching children basic skills such as how to make friends, encouraging them to talk about their feelings, and showing them the importance of being resilient.

Referring to the many disruptions from the pandemic, Whitson said, “The kids have been facing a really tough curve here. What we’re working on is trying to help them understand that it’s not permanent. And help them face it.

One of the reasons schools are pushing for more counselors is because it’s easier to be proactive in addressing the youth mental health crisis.

This year alone, the Santa And Unified School District successfully achieved the nationally recommended ratio of 250 students per counselor. It made all the difference in the advisers’ ability to build trust with students, said Rebecca Pianta, district co-ordinator for college and career preparation.

There’s more time for one-on-one contact, and counselors can build relationships with students – with fun activities on the quad or polls to find out what topics they’re interested in – before they need help.

This is especially important in communities where there is a stigma associated with asking for help, said Káty Castellanos, district director of university and career preparation. Their neighborhood serves a predominantly Latino population.

“Because the mentality is if you have a problem at home you don’t talk about it, you don’t discuss it with anyone,” she said. “And if you go to a school counselor and a social worker, you’re ‘crazy’. So we’re trying to demystify that.


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