Mental health is taking a front seat in schools across Virginia
By Alexa Doiron
Gov. Ralph Northam is pushing for an increase in school counselors with a proposed budget of $36 million, and students in Williamsburg might benefit.
“There’s definitely an increase every school year in students seeking help,” said Jennifer Smethurst, a counselor at Jamestown High School. “Things are just getting worse and we’re needing more support within the building.”
Currently, the average ratio is one counselor to 425 students, according to a news release from the governor’s office. Smethurst falls below that number at around 350 students she oversees, but that number is still 100 students higher than the state’s ratio goal of 250 students per counselor.
But why would school counselors be beneficial to students overall?
Northam is proposing that an increase in counselors leads to better student safety because counselors create a more positive learning environment.
But Smethurst sees it as even more.
“We are definitely seeing more anxiety and depression,” she said. “But we are also opening more dialogue about it. In the past 10 years I’m definitely seeing more students with a greater awareness of mental health issues.”
Smethurst said the school has active outreach programs that are growing each year, such as the “Flight Crew,” which is a group of students who are willing to speak up about any concerning behavior they might see from students as well as spread awareness.
The counselors also try to have educational programs in classrooms as much as possible but Smethurst said this can be very limited because of time constraints of maintaining such a large number of students.
This is even more of an issue at the middle and high school level, she said, where students have a sense of autonomy in the mental health status and want to take advantage of the counseling offered to them. With more students means more constrained time for counselors which can impact the reach of help.
And in some cases, not being able to reach a student in time can have dire consequences.
In Virginia in 2017, there were 9,238 threat assessments, 50 percent of which were self-harm threats, according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Education. VDOE also noted suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth both nationally and in the state.
“We can be more proactive and less reactive and can do more intentional things to address depression and anxiety,” Smethurst said. “I would love to see us be a lot more proactive with our students but it’s about utilizing our resources.”
Smethurst acknowledged one of the best resources is teachers recognizing signs of mental health issues in students. The school provides training for teachers to help spot students in need but Michael Goldstein, the founder of a college prep charter school for low-income kids in Boston, said that still might be enough.
Goldstein noted teachers interact often with more than 60 students students everyday. A report from the National Institute for Mental Health noted nearly 30 percent of students between the ages 13-18 experience anxiety. The report also showed the largest number of depression cases among adolescents happens between the ages of 15 and 17 and primarily in females.
These are large numbers and both Goldstein and Smethurst agree that teachers can’t catch everything. Smethurst also said that while teachers do have a level of training for handling mental health issues, they aren’t the same as a school counselor.
“I don’t think people know a lot about what school counselors do,” she said. “It’s not just scheduling and preparing for college, we are mental health professionals and have mental health knowledge that others might not.”
Jan. 5, 2019