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Don’t Forget School Counselors in Mental Health Debate

January 08, 2013 By Dawn Brown, Guest Commentary

As front line mental health care professionals, my colleagues and I have been asking why? Why did the Connecticut shooting happen? What could have been done to prevent the senseless tragedy? How could we have known this young man was struggling? While this is an extreme circumstance, it is an important time to examine the critical role school counselors play in the spectrum of mental health services.

On a daily basis, we work diligently with students on a variety of academic and mental health issues. For example, some stressors occur naturally as students progress through their education, other stressors are unrelated to school but have an impact on academic performance. It’s up to us to properly identify and meet these ongoing needs.

Despite such an important position in education, Minnesota has one of the nation’s worst ratios school counselors to students, consistently ranking 49th or 50th in the nation. The American Counseling Association recommends a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio. Minnesota schools average 781:1

That ratio is even worse in elementary schools. In a recent article by Christopher Magen entitled “Do Minnesota Schools Need More Counselors” (St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 7, 2012) he cites the ratio of elementary school counselors to students as one elementary counselor to every 3,428 school children. As we all know, early awareness and prevention skills are key to getting students the help that they need so they can be as successful as possible.

One might ask what do elementary school counselors do? How can a school counselor effectively impact our student mental health? There are the obvious answers to that in that counselors help students to develop a positive self-concept related to academics. Counselors can identify academic issues and help students with positive ways to be more successful in school. Counselors help with early career development skills as well. However, School Counselors are licensed practitioners holding Master’s Degrees requiring training in mental health. School Counselors are trained in human growth and development, mental health diagnosis, small group counseling, and working with students with special needs. All of these skills assist counselors to work with students in our schools who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

Counselors know that early diagnosis is crucial in making sure that students get the help that they need. School counselors do not work in isolation but as a part of an integral team in schools to collaborate with teachers, parents, social workers, school psychologists, and other adults to ensure that students have all of their needs met. School counselors also collaborate with community mental health professionals to assist in accurate diagnosis and planning for students. Early diagnosis leads to proper planning for a student’s needs related to being successful in school and life.

The other major piece related to the work elementary school counselors do is that in prevention and early awareness for students. School counselors teach skills related to goal-setting, understanding self, conflict-resolution, problem solving, and respecting others (to name a few). In schools that have elementary school counselors, the caseloads are so high that counselors cannot be expected to be effective in all of these areas. In schools that do not have any counselors, students are not benefiting from a comprehensive school counseling program. Teachers work on these lessons in their classrooms as well but with increased class size and teaching the curriculum that is required, is this really the best solution in our schools?

As an organization, Minnesota School Counselor Association supports making sure that all students have access to the appropriate support professionals in our schools. Because counselors are trained in so many areas related to the whole student, we believe that having access to a licensed school counselor for every student is crucial. We believe that students have the right to access support professionals who can help them reach their goals and be productive members of society. Early intervention and appropriate treatment to develop skills for success are important. School counselors are trained to help with these areas. But I ask you, at a ratio of one counselor to every 3,428 students are we really doing what is best for Minnesota students?

Dawn Brown, President, Minnesota School Counselor Association

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