Schools Struggle to Hire Staff to Deal with Youth Mental Health Crisis

Despite receiving a windfall in Covid-19 relief money, school districts across the U.S. are struggling to add staff to address the mental health needs of students that have grown since the pandemic.

Twelve of the U.S.’s 18 largest school districts saw the school year begin with fewer psychologists or counselors than at the beginning of the school year 2019. As a result, numerous school mental health professionals have caseloads far exceeding recommended limits, according to advocates and experts. Often, students must wait for help that is urgently needed.

While hiring difficulties are mostly to blame, some school districts invested their relief money in other priorities. In the Cobb County Public Schools, no new counselors were added. A spokesperson for the district said school counselor positions are based on a state funding formula, but the district supports more funding strongly.

Many school systems used federal relief money to add staff dedicated to student mental health. However, others didn’t because they worried about affording their salaries when the aid ran out. School districts have limited time to spend the almost $190 billion set aside for recovery.

Many schools looking for and wanting to hire mental health workers have yet to find them. School psychologist positions have been challenging to fill.

In Chicago, although 32 school psychologist positions have been added since the Fall of 2019, only one additional psychologist was added to the staff this fall. Dozens of posts have yet to be filled.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, schools eliminated unfilled psychologist positions by the dozens, leaving the schools with 33 fewer psychologists this fall than before the pandemic.

School psychologists, because of their extended training, are necessary to help determine if students are at risk for suicide and need to provide intensive one-on-one counseling.

A shortage of psychologists in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has kept the already short-staffed department focusing on crisis intervention and providing special education assessments as are legally mandated, said the director of psychological services, Christina Connolly-Chester. The district needs to keep up with more urgent student counseling services.

“If that psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and they’re not able to spend as much time in their assigned schools, then things like counseling go away,” said Connolly-Chester.

The district tried to hire more staff to address increased student needs, including depression, struggles with conflict management, and anxiety, but still has 30 vacant positions for school psychologists, said a district official.

Counselor staffing also down

Staffing of school counselors has also been a challenge for some districts. Nine of the large districts are down in the number of counselors, with another nine seeing increases.

Where hiring has been difficult, many schools have turned to alternatives. In Hawaii, which saw 20 vacant psychologist positions and 31 vacant counselor positions at the beginning of the school year, the state has trained teachers to spot signs of student distress and hired a private company to provide tele-mental health services.

In April, only 4 in 10 districts said new staffers were hired to address the mental health needs of students.