A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

School counselors say they’re seeing more mental health issues with students, see need for services

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

At a time when President Biden and the federal government have sounded alarms about an increase in mental-health issues in youth, school counselors in Kentucky say they too are seeing an increase, and Kentucky lawmakers are working to move several youth-related mental health bills.

Kristen Wilson, who has been a school counselor at Woodford County High School in Versailles for the past eight years, told Crystal Sicard of Spectrum News that she has seen an increase in students seeking help with their mental health over the last year.

“It doesn’t just affect the small ones, it affects everybody,” Wilson told Sicard. “It’s something that we take very, very seriously. We don’t want to take any chances.”

Fabian Garcia, a senior at WCHS, told Sicard that he sees his peers struggling with their mental health and he’s thankful to have resources at school to help.

“I was in a situation earlier this year and I went to the guidance office and they really helped me out,” Garcia said.

Photo from NEA.org

Wilson told Sicard that mental-health issues have been rising in all grade levels, faculty members and adults in the community.

“It’s okay to struggle,” she said. “It’s okay to, you know, have your moments where you’re just kind of at a loss, but it’s also important to reach out to someone. I always tell my students don’t struggle in silence.”

State legislators have been working to improve access to mental-health services in Kentucky’s schools.

In response to the 2018 murders of two students and injury of 18 others in a shooting at Marshall County High School, in 2019, the legislature passed the School Safety and Resiliency Act. Among other things, it requires one trained school-resource officer in every school and one guidance counselor for every 250 students by July 1, 2021, but is subject to availability of funds and qualified personnel. School-based mental-health providers are part of the guidance-counselor requirements law.

Senate Bill 8 of 2020 said the goal of the act was to have at least one counselor per public school and to have at least one counselor or school-based mental health service provider for every 250 students.

A survey by the state school security marshal’s office said in its 2020-21 annual report found that many school districts are still working toward that goal.

The survey found that 99% of Kentucky’s schools have adopted a trauma-informed approach to education, 97% have a trauma-informed team, and 92% have employed a certified school counselor. However, only 41.88% met the goal of one counselor or school-based mental health provider per 250 students.

The overall ratio of mental-health professionals to student is 1 for every 328, but “We are seeing that number going up,” School Security Marshal Ben Wilcox told the Senate Education Committee Feb. 10.

This year, Senate Bill 102, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, offers some clean-up language for SB 8 that would require local superintendents to provide a yearly census of all school-based mental health providers and their duties to the state Department of Education. Under SB 8, they only had to report the number of school counselors. The bill awaits a committee assignment in the House.

Another mental-health bill awaiting a vote, in the Senate Education Committee, is House Bill 44, sponsored by Rep. Bobby McCool, R-Van Lear (Johnson County). It would require a local school district’s attendance policy to include provisions for a student’s mental or behavioral health status.

Youth mental health is also drawing national attention.

In December, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on youth mental health saying that even before the pandemic, one in three high-school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase from 2009 to 2019. And in a similar time frame, suicide rates went up 57% among people aged 10 to 24. In the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have only gone up.

President Biden sounded the alarm on youth mental health in his State of the Union address. He has offered a proposal to make it easier for school-based mental health professionals to seek reimbursement from Medicaid and put an extra $1 billion in his proposed budget to help schools hire additional counselors and school psychologists, and other health professionals, building on monies already provided toward this effort through the American Rescue Plan, the last pandemic-relief bill.

“Let’s take on mental health,” Biden said. “Especially among our children, whose lives and education have been turned upside down.”

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