California schools have beefed up their counseling staffs dramatically in the past few years, but the need for student mental health services — to address trauma related to fires, shootings and social media — has far outpaced counselors’ ability to keep pace with student needs.
Students at Saugus High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita were evacuated two weeks ago after a student opened fire, killing two classmates and himself and wounding three others. It was the 11th school shooting in the United States this year, according to the New York Times.
William Hart Union School District, which includes Saugus High, had actually increased its student mental health staff by 20 percent in recent years, from 83 in 2010-11 to 104 last year. That figure includes counselors, psychologists and social workers.
“Every time something happens, people say, ‘Why weren’t this child’s needs being met?’ The reality is, school counselors and psychologists are saving thousands of troubled kids every day,” said Shane Jimerson, a professor in the Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology Department at UC Santa Barbara who specializes in school crisis and trauma. “But the demand is increasing exponentially and it’s harder and harder to keep up.”
Schools in California have boosted their counseling staffs by 30 percent in the past five years, according to the California Department of Education. But those numbers are not high enough, said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. In California, the ratio of counselors to students is 622-to-1, far higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association. California’s ratio is the third highest in the country, according to the most recent data, behind only Arizona and Michigan. The national average is 464-to-1.
Some districts have made counseling a priority. San Francisco Unified leads all large districts in California with a counselor ratio of 1 counselor for approximately every 110 students.
“We know that counselors play a crucial role in supporting students during times of crisis and guiding students and families toward the resources they need to thrive,” said district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick.
Stockton Unified has tripled its counseling staff over the past decade, from 40 to 120, and last year hired 31 mental health clinicians to provide longer-term support for students who need it. The district’s goal is to reach the 250-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association.
“When you invest in school counselors, you’re not just investing in students’ academic achievement, mental health and college and career readiness,” said Jose Cardenas, a counselor and program specialist for the district. “It’s an investment in the entire school, in families and whole communities.”
Since increasing its counseling staff, the district has seen an increase in attendance and college financial aid completion rates and a decrease in suspensions, he said. Counselors now have more time to visit classrooms and tend to all students, not just those who are undergoing crises.
Still, the workload remains daunting, he said. Students seem increasingly stressed, with more reporting suicidal thoughts and hurting themselves. It’s not unusual to see third-graders talk about killing themselves, he said.
The relentlessness of student mental health needs, especially in the age of mass shootings and social media, can be overwhelming, Cardenas said.
“It seems that no matter how much we do, nothing is ever taken off our plate. It’s always more,” he said. “School counselors are supposed to fix everything, like we have a magic wand.”
Counselors help students with college planning and career choices, but often tend to students’ emotional needs, as well. They identify students with specific problems, such as threatening to hurt themselves or others, offer short-term assistance, work with teachers and students’ families, then pair students with doctors, psychologists or therapists who can address deeper issues.
That’s on top of their regular duties, which include academic advising, educating school staff and students about bullying, vaping, social media and other issues, monitoring the overall school climate, addressing discipline issues and handling crises like natural disasters, shootings, suicides and other deaths.
“School counselors are first responders,” Whitson said.
And overlaying all of these job demands is a rise in students’ anxiety generally, Whitson said. More students are experiencing homelessness and poverty, as families struggle to make ends meet amid the skyrocketing cost of living in parts of California. Families are moving more often, working longer hours and living with more day-to-day stress, which can leave children feeling anxious or depressed, she said.
“Counselors are very grateful for their jobs and work very hard, but sometimes it feels like a band-aid on an arterial wound,” Whitson said.
Jimerson described it as an almost impossible task.
“Counselors and psychologists are charged with meeting all the social-emotional needs of all children all the time. Oh, and by the way, the kids have to score well on state exams,” he said. “There just simply isn’t enough time in the day.”
The job pressures are so great that counselors themselves sometimes suffer from trauma, Whitson said. Exhaustion and “compassion fatigue” — numbness from overexposure to others’ suffering — are common, especially for counselors with high caseloads. Whitson’s organization urges them to talk to each other about stress, particularly during crises; ask for professional training and support; and use personal time to relax.
As teachers are required to do, counselors, psychologists and social workers in California schools undergo a certification process before getting hired. They must have bachelor’s degrees, master’s or doctorate degrees in their chosen field and have completed field work, exams and certification. California schools have about 10,400 counselors, 6,300 psychologists and 865 social workers.
To reach a 250-1 ratio at all California schools would cost an additional $2 billion annually, Whitson said.
When crises like school shootings occur, school counselors and psychologists are thrust in the spotlight — both for their role in not stopping the shooter and in tending to the mental health needs of survivors.
In Santa Clarita, Saugus High remained closed, but counselors and other mental health professionals are on campus offering their services to students who stop by. The district has also increased counseling services at other local schools and provided extensive resources to help students and their families cope with stress and trauma. Staff are also asking the public to send encouraging messages to be posted around the school greeting students when they return.
Police have not determined a motive for the attack, which occurred in the campus quad during second period on Nov. 14. The school is scheduled to reopen on Dec. 2.
Regardless of whether a school has endured a crisis, students’ mental health needs should continue to be a priority on campus, Jimerson said. Mass shootings, social media and poverty are probably not going away soon, he said.
“It’s a very demanding career,” he said. “But there’s a lot at stake. Children’s lives are on the line. Communities are on the line.”