Schools are an ideal location for mental health services. They are often at the heart of the community and should be the place that children and young people are most familiar with. As an institution dedicated to learning and development, staffed by adults who are recognized as trusted authority figures, a school can facilitate interventions and preventative measures around mental health more easily than most other local bodies.
The need for mental health services tailored directly for children and adolescents has never been greater. The US Surgeon General reports that one in five school children suffer from significant mental health problems, including depression, eating disorders, anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts. Causes and symptoms can include family issues, academic or peer pressure, bullying, concerns about their sexuality, and alcohol or substance abuse.
School mental health counselors are the primary resource for children and concerned adults when it comes to tackling these problems. They act to promote good mental health and mental health awareness, along with tolerance and respect for others in a safe and supportive learning environment. Counseling in schools improves attendance, academic performance and school discipline, and gives students better social skills and a higher quality of life.
School is where children spend most of their time, mixing with their peers and under constant adult supervision. School staff are often the first to notice symptoms of poor mental health in children, but most teachers lack the skills to accurately identify mental health problems and take appropriate action.
This is why we need qualified mental health counselors who have the knowledge and training to diagnose and treat problems and disorders and, if necessary, make referrals and/or advocate for their students to achieve the best possible outcome.
Licensed school counselors have a high level of education. Professionals with an appropriate bachelor’s degree can study for an online Master’s in Counseling and specialize in either clinical mental health counseling or school counseling. They can also take a dual course covering both fields. The Master’s in Counseling prepares students to become licensed and includes an internship and final practicum.
Undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems can affect a child’s ability to learn and form friendships. They can also lead to disruptive behavior, which has a negative impact on other children as well. If children are depressed, anxious and unable to express or contain their emotions, then they may lash out, externalizing their distress via unacceptable means, including bullying or vandalism. Alternatively, they may withdraw into themselves, becoming introverted, isolated and unresponsive.
Traditional forms of discipline often fail to address the root causes of such behavior. Counseling can help students identify and express their real concerns and can give them the tools to tackle the deeper underlying difficulties. This approach is more likely to provide a permanent, long-term solution than merely punishing symptomatic actions as they occur.
A collaborative process
School counselors don’t work in a vacuum. They collaborate with teachers, parents, social workers and other authorities, including outside mental health professionals, to achieve the best outcome for students. Aside from one-on-one sessions with individual students, counselors will work with teachers and school leaders to promote mental health awareness. This will involve devising and implementing programs for the benefit of the entire student body, not just those that have been identified as having a problem.
In some cases, counselors may act to refer students to external mental health services. In all cases, they will advocate on behalf of the student. This may involve speaking to their families or to the authorities or enabling group sessions with all parties concerned. The school counselor may provide parents, teachers and students with resources and support when going forward.
Early warning signs
School counselors are able to recognize and respond to warning signs, such as a sudden drop in academic achievement or disciplinary problems. It has been reported that half of all life-long diagnosable mental health conditions begin by the age of 14. Recent studies found that among children aged 3-17, 9.8% suffered from ADHD, while 8.9% had behavioral problems and 4.4% experienced depression. These issues commonly co-occurred, and as of 2020, were on the increase.
Mental health problems become even more widespread in adolescence. In the same survey, it was reported that among 12-17-year-olds, 36.7% had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, while 15.1% had experienced a major depressive episode. Of those surveyed, 18.8% had seriously considered suicide, with 8.9% actually attempting to take their own life. Of these, 2.5% required medical treatment.
Substance use disorders were diagnosed in 4.1% of 12-17-year-olds. Illicit drug disorders accounted for 3.2%, while alcohol use disorders were found in 1.6%. School counselors can help students address these issues before they become chronic problems in adulthood.
Increasingly, school counselors are called upon to help students, families and teachers deal with major crises involving loss of life, from the pandemic to school shootings. Although these situations are incredibly challenging, they are also the times when school mental health counselors are found to be invaluable. Helping those affected process their emotions, and adjust to life-altering events, requires trained professionals who can provide ongoing support.
Under such circumstances, counselors will work as part of crisis teams with outside authorities, dealing both with ongoing events and their aftermath. Thankfully, most school counselors will never be put in this situation, however, should the worst happen, their training and experience will make them an essential part of the response.
Promote positive life skills
School counselors can work with individual students to promote positive life skills. These lessons can also be provided to the wider student body in the form of specific programs designed to aid in conflict resolution, interpersonal communication and other subjects. Counseling needn’t be limited to those students who have demonstrated problematic behavior but can be used to teach emotional maturity and empathy to healthy children as well.
Counseling can help students to overcome obstacles, leading to improved academic performance and greater self-confidence. While the counselor will always be there to offer help and advice, their main role is to teach students how to solve their own problems and navigate life more easily. Coping strategies, anger management and an understanding and respect for diversity can all be developed through group or individual counseling.
Teaching the teachers
A school counselor should be in a position to share knowledge and resources with other school staff, including teachers. This may mean instructing them in basic strategies to deal with disruptive or troubling behavior. In some cases, it may mean working together to stage a classroom intervention. Counselors should be able to advise teachers on the best way to promote good mental health in the classroom, including the use of language and how to discuss the subject with students.
Counselors can help teachers to develop school-wide programs and extracurricular activities aimed at preventing bullying and aggression or promoting tolerance and respect. There may be a need to organize suicide awareness and suicide prevention schemes, or after-school programs for vulnerable students, including those at risk of abuse or aggression in the home.
One of the most challenging areas a school mental health counselor may find themselves working in is that of substance abuse. This may involve alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances. In these cases, the need to help the students affected, and the desire for confidentiality, is complicated by the legal status of someone using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol while underage.
In the best-case scenario, counseling can help the student nip the problem in the bud before they run into problems with the law and receive a criminal record. Substance abuse in the young can also cause serious health problems, both in the short term and in later life. If a student who is experimenting with drugs can speak confidentially to a counselor, then this may prevent them from becoming an addict or worse.
Counseling can help students feel valued and to be accepting of each other’s differences. If young people know that they have something to contribute, then they’ll become better citizens. They will also feel happier and more confident in their own lives, accepting what makes them unique as a virtue, not a failing. If a child feels alienated from their peers, then this can grow into a more serious disaffection if not addressed sensitively and tactfully. Counseling can help each individual to fit in and feel more connected without pushing for absolute conformity.
Opportunities for growth
Children and young people are naturally resilient and if given a fighting chance, they will thrive even in adversity. Access to mental health counseling gives them that opportunity to make sense of the challenges facing them and to realize that they aren’t alone. Counselors can offer clear guidance and support to help them overcome their difficulties and develop the skills that will let them find a place in the world. Addressing mental health issues in the young makes it more likely that they will grow up into responsible, caring adults, which will benefit not just the individual but the whole community.