Alyson Klein at Politics K-12 reports that, on the heels of a civil rights data release revealing that one in five high schools has no school counselor, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is pushing state school chiefs to support school counselors more effectively. Though Klein focuses on the divergence between the administration’s rhetorical support for school counseling and the possible ramifications of their funding strategy, the Secretary’s letter underscores the fundamental ambiguity in the role of counselors in our schools.

Counselors are trained mental health professionals, and yet the emphasis of much of their role in schools is academic advising. The Secretary’s letter focuses on the the latter role and its importance for ensuring that students get the best information about how and where to apply to college, but it may be the former role that has a larger impact on long-term student outcomes. Thus the importance of mental health supports in schools should not go overlooked.

Mental illness among youth is both quite prevalent and largely untreated. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 20 percent of children aged 13-18 and 13 percent of those between eight and 15 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. Despite the prevalence of such disorders, nearly half of those in need receive no care, and treatment rates among African Americans and Hispanics are half what they are for whites, while the rate for Asian Americans is one-third that of whites.

Lack of treatment has a profound effect. According to NAMI, the highest dropout rate for any disability group is for those students receiving special education services who are 14 or older with a mental health condition. More than half of these students drop out. Additionally, of the children in the juvenile justice system, seventy percent endure at least one mental illness. Finally, suicide is the third leading killer among adolescents and young adults, and more than 90 percent of those who die by suicide suffer at least one mental illness. From direct academic effects to increases in disruptive behavior to the unsettlingly common outcome of death, mental health disorders can have a profound effect on the lives of students.

Schools are in a unique position to connect children with mental health care. Many educators are beginning to recognize the value of the health system in promoting early literacy. Recognizing that virtually all children will see their pediatrician, educators see value in using doctors to reach all students, especially those students most at-risk who are often hardest to track down. However, as children reach school age, schools become the institution with the biggest captive audience of children. When it comes to mental health disorders with their low rates of treatment, schools are given the opportunity to return a favor to the health system.

And, as it turns out, when children do receive mental health care its overwhelmingly at school. One review of the literature from 2000 reported that between 70 and 80 percent of children who receive mental health care do so at school. In recognition of the central role schools stand to play, President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health made allowing schools to play a larger role in mental health services one of its recommendations for improving the mental health care system. However, unlike so many other wraparound services schools are tasked with providing, the education system already has the structures in place to provide (at least initial) mental health services through school counselors.

Further research shows that the presence of counselors in schools makes a difference. One quasi-experimental study from Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra suggests that increases in school counselors have twice the impact on student achievement as reductions in class size. Still, the student-to-counselor ratios reveal a school mental health system even more strained than the numbers provided by the administration would suggest. Though the Office of Civil Rights data only discusses access for high-schoolers, the American Counseling Association  (ACA) reports that staffing levels are inadequate at all levels of schooling. Despite the ACA’s recommendation of a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio, the current national average sits at 471:1, and in some states the average exceeds 1000:1. Similarly, the Handbook of School Mental Health explains that for all types of school-based mental health professionals, school psychologists and social workers in addition to counselors, the student-to-professional ratio is two to three times greater than recommended by their respective professional associations.

Its not hard to imagine a system in which mental health professionals don’t double as academic advisors. Without such a change, it’s hard to see the education system as treating the mental health of its students as a priority. It is clear that college and career readiness is an Administration priority. The word ‘college’ appears 12 times in the Secretary’s letter to just 4 mentions of mental health-related terms, and while he suggests holding counselors accountable for “measurably improving the college and career readiness of the students they serve,” no such metrics for student mental health are suggested. But given the prevalence of mental health disorders and their effect on student achievement, any plan to improve college readiness through school counselors cannot afford to make direct mental health services a secondary concern.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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CJ Libassi

CJ Libassi is a graduate student in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He previously worked as an intern on the New America Education Policy Program.