Every school, it seems, has a moment that crystallizes the crisis America’s youth are facing and the pressure it is putting on educators.
For a middle school counselor in rural California, it came after a suicide prevention seminar this year when 200 students showed up and said they needed help. Many were sixth graders.
Another school counselor in Massachusetts tells of a high school student who spent two weeks in a hospital emergency room before being able to get an inpatient bed in a psychiatric ward.
For many schools it is the past weekend Buffalo rampageConducted by an 18-year-old who was flagged for a threatening comment at his high school last year, prompted discussions from staff about how they could respond differently.
Robert Bardwell, director of school counseling at Tantasqua Regional High School in Fiskdale, Massachusetts, said the New York state shooting shaped his handling of a threat assessment this week. He told staff: “Dot our i, cross our t because I don’t want to be on the news in a year or five years saying the school didn’t do anything that we should have prevented.”
A surge in student mental health needs, coupled with staff shortages and widespread episodes of misconduct and violence, has placed an extraordinary strain on school counselors and psychologists. The Buffalo shooting underscores her concern about her ability to support students and adequately screen those who may demonstrate potential for violence.
When accused Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron was asked about his plans after graduation by a teacher at his high school in Binghamton, New York, in the spring of 2021, he replied that law enforcement said he intended to commit murder-suicide. The comment led to state police being called and a psychiatric evaluation conducted at a hospital, where he claimed he was joking and was given permission to attend his graduation.
“I understand that the schools are still safe. And I believe that,” said Bardwell, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. “But it also feels like there are more and more kids who are struggling. And some of these kids who are struggling could do bad things.”
Childhood depression and anxiety were on the rise for years before the pandemic, experts say School closures and broader social lockdowns during the pandemic exacerbated the problems. The return to face-to-face instruction has been accompanied by a rising number of school shootings, according to experts, who say disputes are ending in gunfire as more students bring guns to school. Teachers say disrespect and defiance have increased. Temperaments are shorter and flare up faster.
“The tagline I would use is the kids aren’t doing well,” said Erich Merkle, a psychologist at Akron Public Schools in Ohio, a county with about 21,000 students that he said is seeing an increase of depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies among students, and drug use, as well as aggression and violence, among other behavioral problems. “I can tell you that therapists have problems.”
Many parents had hoped that when classrooms reopened, the problems of distance learning would go away. But it quickly became clear that the continued isolation and immersion in screens and social media was having a lasting impact. Schools have become a stage for the domino effects of the pandemic to play out.
School staff are “100% taxed,” said Jennifer Correnti, director of school counseling at Harrison High School in New Jersey, where counselors have been under pressure as they help students acclimatize after two years of school with pandemic learning disabilities. “Everyone. Administrators, staff. There is no one who escapes. There is no one who leaves the school and is surprised every day.”
Suicide risk assessments, in particular, have risen sharply. The 15-year-old consultant says she’s done as many of these in the past three years as she did in the previous 12.
She and Merkle both said they use mass shootings like the one in Buffalo and another where a 15-year-old shot dead four classmates in Michiganto discuss how they would have reacted.
At Livingston Middle School in rural central California, counselors have been conducting suicide prevention classes in the classroom for years. Before the pandemic, classes would result in about 30 students saying they wanted to see a counselor, said Alma Lopez, the district counselor coordinator and one of two counselors at the middle school.
“This year I have 200 children, which is a quarter of our student population,” she said. “It’s such a huge number. I can’t see 200 kids every week. It’s just impossible.”
Many of the children who sought help were sixth graders with problems related to friendships, she said.
School staff quickly made changes, holding as many one-on-one sessions as possible, offering more group classes on mental health, and posting flyers in every classroom with the suicide prevention hotline number.
They brought back as many activities, clubs, and gatherings as they could to help kids connect. And Lopez said she constantly reminds her district that more support is needed, a request echoed by her peers across the country.
Most states are struggling with mental health support in schools, according to a recent report by the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of national mental health organizations. In some states, including West Virginia, Missouri, Texas and Georgia, there is only one school psychologist for over 4,000 students, the report said.
Lopez has a caseload of about 400 students at her school in Livingston, Calif. — well above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.
“It’s a huge burden right now,” she said. Many students at her school are the children of farm workers in a community hit hard by COVID-19 infections and deaths. She worries about missing something important.
“I think a lot can be lost,” she said. “If we don’t intervene in a timely manner, the problems that accompany grief will be greatly compounded to create additional challenges.”
Lopez and other advisors convened a discussion early last week about helping students process fears surrounding the Buffalo shooting and whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store.
federal government has aid funds helped address the shortage of mental health professionals at some schools, although some had difficulty finding qualified staff or used help to train existing staff.
The challenges are exacerbated by an increase in gun violence on school grounds, said David Riedman, a criminologist and co-founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, which maintains a national list of gun firing incidents in schools.
According to that tally, there were 249 shootings in K-12 schools in 2021, more than double the number in any year since 2018, when Riedman started the database. There have been 122 shootings so far this year.
There is also a notable difference compared to previous years: many of the incidents were not planned attacks, but typical altercations that ended in gunshots.
Mental health specialists outside of schools have also felt the strain, Bardwell said, referring to his student with a history of mental illness who spent two weeks this year in an emergency room waiting to be admitted to mental health care.
It shows the country’s broken healthcare system, he said, and shows that the state does not have enough inpatient mental health capacity, particularly for youth.
Richard Tench, a counselor at St. Albans High School in West Virginia, said it’s impossible to refer students who need outside counseling to therapists in his area.
“All of our recommendations are full. We’re on the waiting list,” he said. “When recommendations are full, where do we go?”
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