As mental health declines, are schools providing enough support for students?

As school districts across the state begin to tackle mental-health issues in the classroom, some question whether the support staff for students is adequate.

“The number of young people affected by mental-health issues is staggering,” says a new report from the New York State School Boards Association and New York Association of School Psychologists.

Half of all mental-health illnesses start by the age of 14, the report says, and each year between 2012 to 2014, an average of 79 young New Yorkers killed themselves.

Dr. John Garruto, president of the New York Association of School Psychologists as well as being a school psychologist with the Oswego City School District, is less alarmist than the opening statement of the report he wrote with four others.

“I would say that we’re seeing an increase in mental health concerns with our youth; I would say that,” Garruto told The Enterprise. “Having done this job for some time, I think that we’re seeing more of it than we did at one time.”

A number of factors, Garruto said, contribute to the rise in mental-health issues: Some children are biologically predisposed to certain mental-health challenges; some parents are ravaged by the opioid epidemic, which can cause both a psychological and financial burden on children; and there has been the explosion in technology, where students (and their parents) spend more time interacting with screens than they do other people.

“One key strategy school districts use to meet the mental-health needs of students is to staff their schools with school psychologists,” Garruto’s report states. “The ratio of school psychologists to students is a critical aspect of the quality of services to students.”

The recommended ratio of psychologists to students should be no more than 1,000 to 1, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. And, when school psychologists are providing more comprehensive and preventive services, the ratio should be closer to 500-700 to 1.  

A survey by the report’s authors found that 45 percent of superintendents and 95 percent of school psychologists said that students encountered barriers in trying to access appropriate psychological help.

Voorheesville

Superintendent Brian Hunt said that the small, suburban Voorheesville School District had adequate mental-health support staffing. However, he said, “I think there’s more of an incidence of students who have mental-health needs and social-emotional needs.”

Voorheesville Elementary, Hunt said, has one school counselor and a psychologist; the campus with the middle and high schools has a school psychologist, social worker, two high-school counselors, and one middle-school counselor. In September, Hunt reported to the Board of Education that 1,175 students were enrolled in the district.

Hunt said that Voorheesville has good support in place for students while they are at school, but has difficulty providing more “wraparound services.”

“There are resources in the community that we do point people toward and that’s something that is a valuable resource,” Hunt said. “But sometimes families with challenges have difficulty accessing services that are away from their home community and away from the school.”

Next year, Hunt said, there is a possibility — depending on the budget — of having a school-based mental-health clinic in Voorheesville. The Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Hunt said, contracts with an outside agency to provide a mental-health support to both students and their families.

“But I have to say, we don’t know what the budget looks like; it’s always the money question,” he said.

Guilderland

Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles said that the large, suburban district should have an on-campus clinic up and running by January.

Some students (and their families) need additional help, Wiles said, and, in those cases, the student would be referred to an outside clinic for that support. “What this is, is taking that outside clinic and locating it here within our own school district,” she said.

In some districts, especially the more rural ones, schools are the “de facto mental-health” providers, the report says, because of the lack of psychologists practicing in the area.

Timothy Mundell, superintendent of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District, is quoted in the report discussing the difficulties his district faces: “As a rural district, we are isolated from services. Isolation, transportation, and money create barriers to receiving ongoing services for the long-term social/emotional development of students.”

Mundell did not respond to an Enterprise call seeking comment before press time.

While Garruto’s report focused on school psychologists, Wiles said, she emphasized that Guilderland has a team of 31 psychologists, counselors, and social workers who care for the social, emotional, mental-health needs of the district’s 4,800 students. Hunt had also emphasized this team approach.   

“Each of those groups, have slightly different tasks or focus in their work,” Wiles said, “but the underlying goal of all three of those groups is to support our students.”

She added, “And, I think we have a pretty robust continuum of services to meet the needs of our kids.”

Changing the role of school psychologists

To help students, the answer isn’t always to just throw more school psychologists at the problem, Garruto said; transforming the role a bit is one way to help more students, he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York — the fourth most populous state — has the second most clinical, counseling, and school psychologists in the country.

“Much — if not all — of a school psychologist’s time is devoted to meeting minimum state and federal requirements,” Garruto’s report says. One of the most important legal requirements, according to the report, are the psychological evaluations of students who are thought to have some kind of educational disability.

If a student is found to have a disability, he is then referred to a committee on special education, a process that requires school psychologists to perform clerical duties such as scheduling and attending committee meetings to discuss the student’s individualized education program.

“The law does say a school psychologist needs to be there as part of the full CSE,” Garruto said of the committee on special education. “But that doesn’t mean they need to do all the little pieces … .”

Chairing meetings and performing tasks like sending legal notices, obtaining permission for evaluations, and establishing a student’s social history, Garruto said, can keep a school psychologist from performing the core functions of her job. To help transform the school psychologist’s job, his report recommends having clerical staff and other professionals perform such duties.

Guilderland, it would seem, has already implemented some of Garruto’s recommendations.  

“Our school psychologists are hardworking people, there’s no doubt about it. But that’s why we also have social workers and counselors … a good number of those people can participate in counseling and the support side of the work,” Wiles said, adding that there are 10 psychologists across the school district’s seven buildings.

Asked if these were issues that he encountered in his own job, Garruto was flattering and diplomatic.

“I think that’s a good question,” he said. “I think I can say this safely: Certainly, I would love to see my clerical duties be reduced; I think that would be very helpful.”   

Garruto also has the good fortune, he said, of being placed in one school whereas a psychologist whose time is split among multiple buildings doesn’t ever really become part of any school community; doesn’t get to help shape a community; or really weigh in on decisions that affect the school.

 

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