Mental health and student success: Why Texas needs more school counselors
Mental health can be linked to a students’ academic outcomes, which means that students can have a difficult time thriving at school if they are experiencing poor mental health. The World Health Organization says that emotional disorders can affect students’ school attendance and school work. Drops in grades and tardiness can also be signs of poor mental health. The healthier the students, the better their academic outcomes may be.
However, the importance of school counselors is not reflected in reported student-to-school counselor ratios. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) supports a 250-to-1 ratio of students-to-school counselors, but according to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, the national student-to-school counselor ratio was 408-to-1 in the 2021-2022 school year. Only two states in the nation, New Hampshire (208-to-1) and Vermont (186-to-1), satisfied this recommended ratio.
In Texas, the issue is especially pronounced. Mental Health America published in their 2022 State of Mental Health in America Report that Texas, with a 2021-2022 ratio of 390-to-1, ranks 41st out of 51 states (including District of Columbia) in their youth rankings. This ranking makes Texas a state where “youth have a higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care,” according to Mental Health America.
Dr. Jaime Freeny, the director of the Center of School Behavioral Health of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, agrees that school counselors are vital members of school communities, but said they need to focus on mental health supports as well as academic supports. According to Dr. Freeny, school counselors are asked to juggle multiple tasks and wear multiple hats. They are sometimes pulled into classrooms, lunchroom duty, or bus duty. In addition, school counselors must also spend time on academic planning such as assisting with students’ classes, college testing, or graduation support. The dual responsibilities and competing priorities can make it difficult for school counselors to best support their students’ mental health.
According to Dr. Freeny, without school counselors, students cannot learn the best approaches to cope with the range of issues they may face and fail to have the support they need. Some schools use scheduling systems which require that students book slots with their school counselors.
A student at Lawrence E. Elkins High School, said that barriers like appointment systems or not having enough school counselors can make it difficult for students to get ahold of their counselors in a timely fashion, especially if there is a large student-to-school counselor ratio.
“Making it easier to talk with a counselor could be improved. At our school there are a bunch of students and there are no walk-ins where students can talk directly with their counselors without appointment. Because of this, it is hard to talk to our counselors,” the student said.
School counselors do not only help young people develop healthy lifelong coping skills, which they take with them into the world, but they can also spread awareness of credible mental health information. In a digital world, social media and other dubious websites can hold dangerous misinformation regarding mental health. School counselors act as certified and credible professionals for students to ask important questions about mental health and receive accurate answers. If students cannot find heathy coping habits or get the help they need, these struggles can manifest into larger mental health issues, disrupt their learning, and affect their academic outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that young people’s mental health habits and behaviors are often continued in their adult years. It is vital that children establish and develop healthy coping habits early on in their lives.
Furthermore, discussions surrounding mental health are not always welcomed in some students’ households. Students may not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts or confiding in their parents or families about the struggles they are facing.
Shania Vensel, a high school student at William B. Travis High School, said counselors can act as important support systems for students who may not have strong support at home.
“In the few hours left of the day after school, I have my job, homework, house chores, and the emotional state of my family all to deal with. This barely gives me time to process my emotions. Most days stepping into first period is when I get time to deal with all of the emotions of the day before. Handling that alone too can be at many times feel overwhelming. Having someone in school to guide students with their emotional needs would be so enriching,” Vensel said.
In addition, many low-income families and students of color do not receive the quality or number of school counselors their communities need. In order to help individuals rise out of poverty and support their success, prioritizing school counselors is critical. Research has connected lower students-to-student counselor to higher graduation and attendance rates.
Mental Health must be prioritized by decision makers in schools in order to ensure academic success and healthy psychological and cognitive development. State school counseling mandates and legislation differ from state-to-state in the United States. In Texas, there is no mandate to hire a school counselor for grades K-8 or 9-12, but if a school counselor is hired, they must meet state standards. In addition, there is no school counselor-to-student ratio mandate being considered currently. Texas state law requires “school counselors to take on certain roles and responsibilities, but it does not require a school counselor in every school or any specific ratio”. This leaves a large portion of power and responsibility to school districts, school boards, and their education codes. Mental health and an increase in school counselors should be a main concern for school districts’ decision makers as they decide where funding goes and when they are crafting the regulations surrounding mental health services.
Dr. Freeny spoke to how budgeting decisions could lead to more school counselors and mental health professionals on school campuses.
“Often times, principals have only one budget to hire teachers or mental health professionals, which isn’t fair to schools, but since schools are a venue to reach young people, it would make sense for mental health professionals to reach students on campus. They are trained to help with mental health, behavioral counseling, students with disabilities or additional support because of a tragedy, death, or something traumatizing in their life,” Freeny said.
Texas children continue to bear the brunt of lack of funding in public schools and schools failing to prioritize mental health support. With the current mental health crisis facing young people and rising rates in lower youth mental health, law makers, local leaders, and schools must continue to make school counselors and mental health support a priority.