At first, Mira Ugwuadu felt a sense of relief when her high school transitioned to remote learning in 2020, allowing her to work on advanced placement courses at her own pace. But soon, the 17-year-old found herself studying outside of school hours, unable to separate academics from her home life.
When her classmates went back to in-person learning at her metro Atlanta school, Mira stayed home because she didn’t want to risk her health. Ultimately, the social isolation and intense workload resulted in severe feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Mira reached out to school counselors for help but was met with denial after denial: “Oh, the counselors are too busy. … Oh, the counselor is in a meeting,” she recalled being told. When she finally met with one, “the counselor just told me, ‘We have to send you home,’ and barely even talked to me or addressed my concerns at all.”
Now, the high school senior avoids school counselors altogether.
Already burdened by a heavy workload before the pandemic, school counselors have seen the problem intensify. Though student-to-counselor ratios are at their lowest in at least 30 years, they remain well above professional recommendations, while students’ demand for mental health services is surging. Struggling with pandemic-related issues, students are reporting a greater sense of hopelessness, more abuse at home, and higher rates of suicide attempts.
During the 2021-2022 school year, the average student-to-counselor ratio was 408-to-1. The American School Counselor Association has recommended a ratio of 250-to-1 since 1965.
The added layers of stress, social isolation, and life disruption during the pandemic has led to dire mental health outcomes, with adolescents even showing accelerated brain aging. The “soaring rates of mental health challenges” among youth prompted a group of national health organizations to declare a national state of emergency in children’s mental health in October 2021, saying that the crisis was “inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19.”
Students in majority-minority schools — those where at least half of students are of color — have had even less access to counselors and psychologists than in majority-white schools. Meanwhile, Black youth have been disproportionately burdened with the worst impacts of the pandemic, with higher rates of COVID-related hospitalization and learning loss. Black youth lost a primary caregiver at nearly double the rate of white children between March 2020 and November 2021 — a loss with lifelong effects on rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and suicide. And about 25% of Black youth reported a parent or adult lost their job during the pandemic.
The limited supply of mental health professionals has created significantly longer wait times for students — more than a year, in some cases, said Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The problem is particularly critical in rural areas, where preexisting challenges with geographic isolation, food and housing insecurities, and chronic shortages of mental health resources cause higher rates of psychological distress. Limited internet service can be an additional barrier to accessing telehealth services.
“My overall concern is not about what’s happening, present day,” Crawford said. “I’m worried about the impact of the cumulative effects of all these delays in entering mental health care and how that’s going to alter the trajectory for a lot of these kids.”
The shifting role of the school counselor
The hurdles to providing adequate mental health services in schools are multifaceted, including insufficient staff to manage caseloads, lack of licensed professionals, and limited funding.
In other cases, school leaders haven’t reckoned with the shifting role of school counselors in the post-pandemic world, said Crystal Brewer, chair of the Magnolia State School Counselor Association. The responsibilities of academic advising, record keeping, and clerical work is “not what we’re trying to do,” she said, and they limit the focus on students’ mental health concerns.
“When you’re trying to be there to help the students who are dealing with issues or trauma or crisis, and you’re also still trying to do the records and the meetings and the other things … sadly, it’s the students who end up not getting what they need,” Brewer said.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said some school districts have struggled to find the appropriate staff to deal with the growing issue of student behavior and other concerns.
“When I meet with superintendents, mental health concerns are their most important concern, followed closely or almost together with staff shortage of our teachers, counselors, health care professionals,” he said. “There’s a general shortage of education personnel across the board.”
Congress allocated $122 billion to support elementary and secondary schools in response to the pandemic through the American Rescue Plan in 2021, including mental health support services. But schools reported spending only 15% of the federal funding during the 2021-2022 school year because of a delay in accessing the money and staff shortages, The Washington Post reported.
Even when the funding is used, districts planned to spend only about 7% of those resources on mental health services and COVID mitigation strategies, according to data published by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nearly two years after the historic investment from the Biden administration, some schools are still unable to provide the necessary post-pandemic mental health care, forcing students to find help elsewhere or fall through the cracks.
Living in Boise, Idaho, 14-year-old Delphine Robin has often been the only Black student in her classroom, or one of very few. She has struggled to make friends, improve her academic performance, and speak out against racism at her school, she said. Some of those issues worsened during the pandemic.
In her new high school, Delphine has felt burdened by pressures from school leaders to fix race relations, which also have contributed to her declining mental health, she said.
“They’re like, ‘What can you do for us that we can continue to help these relationships?’ Well, I am a 14-year-old girl. Do not ask me that. I can give you ideas, but you can’t just put this on me. It has to be a group effort,” Delphine said. “It shouldn’t really even be like this.”
Delphine’s mom, who is white, saw the devastating effects that living as a Black child in a predominantly white state had on her daughter.
“She was feeling isolated, saying she wanted straight, long hair because she wasn’t seeing any mirrors in her classrooms,” Laura Loftus said, adding that Delphine didn’t want to participate in gymnastics or other activities because she was the only Black kid. “I feel like it was getting in the way of her growth and development and trying new things, and I could tell she was depressed.”
Matters of social justice and multiculturalism are included in the professional training standards crafted by the American School Counselor Association and accepted by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. But often, Black children’s concerns are not taken seriously. Members of the American School Counselor Association are overwhelmingly white: 76% compared to 11% who are Black.
With school counselors stretched thin, teachers can feel pressure to provide backup when it comes to students’ mental health. But they are often “overwhelmed by the responsibility” given they lack the resources — a deficit that ends up disproportionately affecting kids of color, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
Education fields, already suffering from a lack of diversity, could see that problem grow, according to the NEA. A February 2022 survey found that 62% of Black educators have thought about leaving the profession, with political wars over teaching Black studies and other issues of race also creating an even more difficult work environment.
“If we lose more educators, we know what that’s going to do for our students,” Pringle said. “It’s just going to make it worse.”
Public schools say they have made efforts to improve mental health conditions for students. In the School Pulse Panel, 85% of public schools reported that they had encouraged existing staff to address student social, emotional, and mental well-being. Nearly 60% of schools said they effectively provide mental health services to all students in need. About 40% reported they hired new staff to focus on student well-being.
But while teachers are advised to check in with their students, they often don’t have the time to because of additional responsibilities to “catch kids up” from COVID-era learning loss, said Crawford, the psychiatrist. With fewer teachers and larger class sizes, mental health checks get pushed further down the to-do list, she said.
“There’s this ongoing focus on academics, but there are missed opportunities to check in and see how the kids are doing emotionally,” she said. “The reality is the time is there, it’s just filled up with other things when the expectation is that academics is the priority.”
Support outside of school
Something clicked for hairstylist Shari Baber when she noticed that the Black kids in her Idaho salon never wanted to leave. Like Delphine, they were feeling isolated in their communities. Most of them were adopted by white parents and were the only Black child in their families and neighborhoods.
“I started to realize the kids had a connection to heritage here. … I was the only Black adult in their whole life because I was doing their hair,” Baber said. “I realized these kids thrive seeing other kids that look like them on a regular basis, so I realized if I put them together often enough that they could grow organic relationships with each other.”
What started out as gatherings for Baber’s kids’ birthday parties transformed into Brown Like Me, a nonprofit organization launched in 2019 to help Black children with educational, extracurricular, and recreational opportunities. In the midst of pandemic-related challenges, Baber and her volunteer staff worked hard to ensure the kids stayed together. As the students’ mental health worsened, mental health specialists who donate time to the organization conducted informal mental health checks with the students.
“Our conversations are intentional to get the kids to talk about their feelings. They didn’t know they were in counseling,” Baber said. “To them, they were just talking to mentors in the program … which is how we helped them navigate through self-help, self-care, and self-awareness to be in touch with their feelings and address their mental health issues.”
As a participant in Brown Like Me, Delphine said she’s been able to build a community outside of school. “It’s been cool” to do things she wouldn’t have had the chance to, such as learning how to cook Southern dishes, finding hair products for her curly textured hair, and joining the step team and Nigerian dance team.
“It’s exciting to see people that look just like you, energetic and full of life,” Delphine told Capital B. “I’m around these powerful women and I want to be like them.”
Delphine said her mental health is better because of the organization. Baber and other mentors have helped her build confidence and speak up for herself and others. The group also has helped her improve her grades.
Though Delphine had support, at school she still felt isolated, especially last school year. So, one day, her friends from the dance team that she met through Brown Like Me surprised her by showing up to her school to eat lunch with her, her mother said.
The organization “really helped build some solid friendships,” said Loftus, who volunteers with Brown Like Me. “It has helped her feel like she has a place where she can speak about those feelings and those mental health issues with peers and mentors … and get some solutions.”
For Mira, the student in Georgia, she struggled to convince her parents she needed help. For months, they told her “to just pray about it” and “find a relationship with God,” she said. But eventually, they agreed to find a therapist, and the message from a professional gave them a “wake-up call.”
“I guess a good thing that came out of my negative experiences with counselors was that my parents needed an adult to tell them, ‘Hey, your child is not doing so hot,’” she said of the new counselor. “A lot of students are struggling, and they’ll talk to their parents, but we’re not taken as seriously.”
Mira said her mental health has improved since she started talking to the therapist. She joined the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition as the communications lead in hopes of advocating at the legislative level for access to school counselors. She’s also the dance captain and secretary for her high school class, she said.
“To administrators or even government officials in charge of budgeting or funding, giving adequate resources towards counseling departments is one of the most important things in schools,” she said, “especially for people who don’t have the opportunity to get help outside of school.”
School counselors and therapists aren’t the only solution, Crawford noted. Rather than focusing solely on mental health professionals, it’s important to empower the people already involved in the children’s lives, such as coaches, family members, and teachers, she said.
“Kids just want someone to understand their experience and to listen. I’ve heard from kids that when they feel comfortable with an adult, they’re able to open up and share,” Crawford said. “It doesn’t always have to be medications. It doesn’t always have to be individual therapy, although we know it’s beneficial. It’s important for people to feel empowered that there’s some way in which they can be helpful in the matter, rather than sitting back being like, ‘Oh my goodness, we just don’t have therapists. We don’t have the resources.’”