State auditors, school psychologists: NY schools don’t have enough mental health staff

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Even as students return to school in person, the effects of the pandemic linger. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — In 2018, New York became the only state that requires public schools to include mental health in their curriculum. Despite that, a state audit released this week found many school districts don’t have enough trained mental health workers to meet students’ needs. 

New York requires mental health to be taught in the K-12 curriculum. But current law leaves it up to schools to determine the extent of services they provide. As a result, the majority of school districts fall far short of recommended staffing levels for mental health workers, but are still considered compliant with state education law.

The report found that only 34% of school districts had enough counselors at the recommended level — one counselor per 250 students. The share of districts with enough social workers is even lower, at 5%. And about half of the state’s school districts have one psychologist to serve every 500 students.

Jessica Hussar Boyle teaches at Binghamton University. She’s also part of the Southern Tier chapter of the New York Association of School Psychologists, where she works with mental health providers working in rural schools.

“We are starting to see shortages in especially our rural areas,” Boyle said. “Positions for school psychologists left open year after year with no one to fill them,” Boyle said.

Boyle said rural districts, like many in the Southern Tier, struggled to find enough mental health workers long before the pandemic. For most students, she said, the vast majority of mental health care happens within the school setting.

“The mental health crisis has been a powder keg, and the pandemic was the match that blew it up,” Boyle said.

The lack of counselors and psychologists — coupled with the effects of remote learning — has had a toll on kids.

Schools saw a significant uptick in behavioral issues this year, as students returned to the classroom in person.

Binghamton High School had to close its doors in the aftermath of fights and vandalism. And white students in Chenango County have threatened violence on Black students in at least two school districts this year. Even some elementary school staff say they’ve noticed younger students have developed some concerning habits.

Boyle said these problems have been a long time in the making. She said it’s key to address potential problems as early as possible — before the “powder keg” explodes.

“With Binghamton City High School, we have this logjam that occurred and now everything’s breaking loose,” Boyle said. “And the best that you can do in that situation is crisis intervention.”

For Binghamton High School, that crisis intervention included school psychologists, but also private security guards and metal detectors.

Gretchen Rymarchyk, of the Rural School Association of New York State, said when districts have one or limited mental health providers, other school staff have to be prepared to pitch in.

“Using what you have also means how can we have this one [school psychologist] help the rest of the staff become mini mental health assistants?” Rymarchyk said.

Rymarchyk said all school staff, from principals to cafeteria workers, can help kids with their mental health. 

But playing those extra roles can be tough. Rymarchyk said it’s not just kids who feel stressed and burned out. There’s a lot of that sentiment in the teacher’s lounge too. 

School budgets aren’t as tight this year, thanks to federal COVID-19 relief funding. But school leaders said they are hesitant to hire new staff with those temporary funds. That means all school staff, including mental health providers, are stretched particularly thin.

Rymarchyk said all that stress can manifest in problematic behavior — not only in kids, but adults too.

“Everybody’s coming back with worse behaviors,” Rymarchyk said. “We saw bad behavior at the Oscars.”

Rymarchyk said rural communities have been under lots of stress the past few years. The opioid epidemic, COVID-19 and a deepening political divide, have all played a part.

When adults are stressed and don’t have access to mental health resources, their children pick up that stress too, Rymarchyk said. And all that stress can lead to troubling behavior throughout a community, not just in classrooms.

The report echoes what Boyle and Rymarchyk have seen themselves; there’s just not enough mental health staff in schools at a time when they are sorely needed.