Credi: Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register via AP
Michelle Bosshard and her 9-year-old son Lucas visit a memorial, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, for two students killed during a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., days before. The Bosshards, who live in the neighborhood, know a handful of kids who were hiding during the shooting. The students will return to school on Dec. 2.

California schools have beefed up their counseling staffs dramatically in the past few years, but the need for student mental health services — to address trauma related to fires, shootings and social media — has far outpaced counselors’ ability to keep pace with student needs.

Students at Saugus High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita last week were evacuated after a student opened fire, killing two classmates and himself and wounding three others. It was the 11th school shooting in the United States this year, according to the New York Times.

William Hart Union School District, which includes Saugus High, had actually increased its student mental health staff by 20 percent in recent years, from 83 in 2010-11 to 104 last year. That figure includes counselors, psychologists and social workers.

“Every time something happens, people say, ‘Why weren’t this child’s needs being met?’ The reality is, school counselors and psychologists are saving thousands of troubled kids every day,” said Shane Jimerson, a professor in the Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology Department at UC Santa Barbara who specializes in school crisis and trauma. “But the demand is increasing exponentially and it’s harder and harder to keep up.”

Schools in California have boosted their counseling staffs by 30 percent in the past five years, according to the California Department of Education. But those numbers are not high enough, said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. In California, the ratio of counselors to students is 622-to-1, far higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association. California’s ratio is the third highest in the country, according to the most recent data, behind only Arizona and Michigan. The national average is 464-to-1.

Some districts have made counseling a priority. San Francisco Unified leads all large districts in California with a counselor ratio of 1 counselor for approximately every 110 students.

“We know that counselors play a crucial role in supporting students during times of crisis and guiding students and families toward the resources they need to thrive,” said district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick.

Stockton Unified has tripled its counseling staff over the past decade, from 40 to 120, and last year hired 31 mental health clinicians to provide longer-term support for students who need it. The district’s goal is to reach the 250-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association.

“When you invest in school counselors, you’re not just investing in students’ academic achievement, mental health and college and career readiness,” said Jose Cardenas, a counselor and program specialist for the district. “It’s an investment in the entire school, in families and whole communities.”

Since increasing its counseling staff, the district has seen an increase in attendance and college financial aid completion rates and a decrease in suspensions, he said. Counselors now have more time to visit classrooms and tend to all students, not just those who are undergoing crises.

Still, the workload remains daunting, he said. Students seem increasingly stressed, with more reporting suicidal thoughts and hurting themselves. It’s not unusual to see 3rd-graders talk about killing themselves, he said.

The relentlessness of student mental health needs, especially in the age of mass shootings and social media, can be overwhelming, Cardenas said.

“It seems that no matter how much we do, nothing is ever taken off our plate. It’s always more,” he said. “School counselors are supposed to fix everything, like we have a magic wand.”

Counselors help students with college planning and career choices, but often tend to students’ emotional needs, as well. They identify students with specific problems, such as threatening to hurt themselves or others, offer short-term assistance, work with teachers and students’ families, then pair students with doctors, psychologists or therapists who can address deeper issues.

That’s on top of their regular duties, which include academic advising, educating school staff and students about bullying, vaping, social media and other issues, monitoring the overall school climate, addressing discipline issues and handling crises like natural disasters, shootings, suicides and other deaths.

“School counselors are first responders,” Whitson said.

And overlaying all of these job demands is a rise in students’ anxiety generally, Whitson said. More students are experiencing homelessness and poverty, as families struggle to make ends meet amid the skyrocketing cost of living in parts of California. Families are moving more often, working longer hours and living with more day-to-day stress, which can leave children feeling anxious or depressed, she said.

“Counselors are very grateful for their jobs and work very hard, but sometimes it feels like a band-aid on an arterial wound,” Whitson said.

Jimerson described it as an almost impossible task.

“Counselors and psychologists are charged with meeting all the social-emotional needs of all children all the time. Oh, and by the way, the kids have to score well on state exams,” he said. “There just simply isn’t enough time in the day.”

The job pressures are so great that counselors themselves sometimes suffer from trauma, Whitson said. Exhaustion and “compassion fatigue” — numbness from overexposure to others’ suffering — are common, especially for counselors with high caseloads. Whitson’s organization urges them to talk to each other about stress, particularly during crises; ask for professional training and support; and use personal time to relax.

As teachers are required to do, counselors, psychologists and social workers in California schools undergo a certification process before getting hired. They must have bachelor’s degrees, master’s or doctorate degrees in their chosen field and have completed field work, exams and certification. California schools have about 10,400 counselors, 6,300 psychologists and 865 social workers.

To reach a 250-1 ratio at all California schools would cost an additional $2 billion annually, Whitson said.

When crises like school shootings occur, school counselors and psychologists are thrust in the spotlight — both for their role in not stopping the shooter and in tending to the mental health needs of survivors.

In Santa Clarita, Saugus High remains closed but counselors and other mental health professionals are on campus offering their services to students who stop by. The district has also increased counseling services at other local schools and provided extensive resources to help students and their families cope with stress and trauma. Staff are also asking the public to send encouraging messages to be posted around the school greeting students when they return.

Police have not determined a motive for the attack, which occurred in the campus quad during second period on Nov. 14. The school is scheduled to reopen on Dec. 2.

Regardless of whether a school has endured a crisis, students’ mental health needs should continue to be a priority on campus, Jimerson said. Mass shootings, social media and poverty are probably not going away soon, he said.

“It’s a very demanding career,” he said. “But there’s a lot at stake. Children’s lives are on the line. Communities are on the line.”

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  1. Carole Cain 7 days ago7 days ago

    A very informative and surprising article.

  2. NINA M BISHOP 1 week ago1 week ago

    One thing which would greatly relieve stress in our schools would be to stop high stakes standardized testing in every state. American schools aren't failing; it's a myth to make profits for privateers opening charters and selling curriculum and testing. The US educates everyone; other countries do not. In the international exams the US tests all students including rural and poor but other countries test only their best. American schools aren't failing. American schools are … Read More

    One thing which would greatly relieve stress in our schools would be to stop high stakes standardized testing in every state. American schools aren’t failing; it’s a myth to make profits for privateers opening charters and selling curriculum and testing. The US educates everyone; other countries do not. In the international exams the US tests all students including rural and poor but other countries test only their best. American schools aren’t failing. American schools are some of the best schools in the world. So we need to stop testing the crap out of school children, especially the youngest. The constant push through school is exhausting as is the pressure of constant competition. Just let them learn in a developmentally appropriate manner.

  3. Cris 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    It’s so good to know counselors are doing such a good job but it’s not a problem to be fixed just with their intervention. Families need to be involved and doing their job to love and care their children and schools need to focus more on relationships than grades !

  4. Rene 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    How about parents shouldering some of this responsibility? Get off the cell phone and do something with your child . . . toss a baseball, go roller skating, share a handcraft, volunteer as a Boy Scout, Camp Fire, or 4-H leader (or assistant to a leader). It is not everyone else's job to raise your kid. Kids can't cope because parents don't teach them to cope, they bail them out every step … Read More

    How about parents shouldering some of this responsibility? Get off the cell phone and do something with your child . . . toss a baseball, go roller skating, share a handcraft, volunteer as a Boy Scout, Camp Fire, or 4-H leader (or assistant to a leader). It is not everyone else’s job to raise your kid. Kids can’t cope because parents don’t teach them to cope, they bail them out every step of the way. If you don’t talk to your kids, they won’t talk with you, and this begins at birth – not when they are in school. Again, put down the fricken phone and spend time with your kids. It’s not rocket science why this is happening.

  5. Vincent L Taylor 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    A healthy counseling environment is as important as a professional counselor because, as explained in the webinar at ECare Behavioral Institute, children who are stressed related to school can never open up in the same environment about their problems. So we have to research on different type of activities that help open our children up.

  6. Roman Stearns 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Unfortunately, we have created an education system that no longer prioritizes the joy of learning based on social relationships, empathy, and trust, but rather one that more highly values competition, scores on standardized tests, and admissions to selective universities. That reality creates stress throughout the system that touches all of us. Somehow, we must find our way back to educating the whole child, inspiring intellectual curiosity, pursuing interests and passions, building social relationships, and catering … Read More

    Unfortunately, we have created an education system that no longer prioritizes the joy of learning based on social relationships, empathy, and trust, but rather one that more highly values competition, scores on standardized tests, and admissions to selective universities. That reality creates stress throughout the system that touches all of us. Somehow, we must find our way back to educating the whole child, inspiring intellectual curiosity, pursuing interests and passions, building social relationships, and catering to other social-emotional skills.

    Doing so requires bold leadership, changing mindsets, shifting school and district cultures, and lifting the pressure of compliance-driven strategies. Partners of Scaling Student Success (https://scalingstudentsuccess.org) are dedicated to promoting structures and policies that support educating the whole child. Together, we can re-vision and create a common agenda that will ultimately reduce stress levels for everyone in the system.

  7. Lyn 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Kids At Hope is a program that helps raise children’s social emotional health. You can start as young as preschool.

    The other thing we need is to to train our teachers to be trauma informed so they can help. Concordia University now offers a degree in trauma informed teaching.

  8. Wiko 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Seems to me a lot of trauma may be addressed with appropriate gun control measures that the federal government could impose. Counsellors and social workers have no control on who can buy a gun.

  9. Melissa 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    We definitely need more counselors but we also need social workers. The variations from state to state on what levels of requirements there are for social workers to work in the schools means there's not a blanket response for everywhere. But we as counselors are gaining more and more trauma response duties yet nothing's being taken away. The poverty issues, the first generation college-bound students, the options other than college after high school that … Read More

    We definitely need more counselors but we also need social workers. The variations from state to state on what levels of requirements there are for social workers to work in the schools means there’s not a blanket response for everywhere. But we as counselors are gaining more and more trauma response duties yet nothing’s being taken away. The poverty issues, the first generation college-bound students, the options other than college after high school that we need to invest more time in preparing students for these areas as well. But we are spending a vast majority of our time in response mode.

    We know we need to do more proactively to reduce that, but there’s no time to do it. Our exhaustion is real and overwhelming.

  10. Kirsten Barnes 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    There are three Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credentials in California – School Counselors, School Social Workers and School Psychologists. The reason for these three separate credentials is that they all offer a unique and valued perspective in the support of California students. They are all highly trained professionals (masters-level or higher). For example, School Social Workers have more training in family consultation, foster care, and other social service interventions, and School Psychologists are … Read More

    There are three Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credentials in California – School Counselors, School Social Workers and School Psychologists. The reason for these three separate credentials is that they all offer a unique and valued perspective in the support of California students. They are all highly trained professionals (masters-level or higher). For example, School Social Workers have more training in family consultation, foster care, and other social service interventions, and School Psychologists are trained to provide academic assessments, and School Counselors are trained in college/career development. However, in common is that we are all mental health service providers and are well versed in child development and mental health counseling services. We have worked very hard to partner at the state level in representing all PPS professionals including School Nurses. We promote providing services to the “whole child” and not to claim anyone is more or less qualified than the other. While all aforementioned professionals have caseloads that are extremely high, our attention should be focused on more mental health resources across-the-board.

    As a reference, California has recently updated the Pupil Personnel Services Program Standards and Performance Expectations, and as you can see by clicking the link below. I am a governor-appointed Commissioner on the Commission on Teacher Credentialing representing all non-administrative service credentials. I am a high school counselor. We need to invest collectively in more school counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists at all grade levels and stay away from unneeded criticism. Our schools and our students are in crisis mode. It “takes a village”!

    https://www.ctc.ca.gov/docs/default-source/educator-prep/standards/pps-school-counseling-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=4

  11. Marie 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Many school districts have hired Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists which is helpful because they work in collaboration with school counselors. School counselors mainly target academic advising and career development while also providing social-emotional support; however, they are not clinically trained like Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT). School's need more LMFTs to provide therapy (individual and family therapy) for those students dealing with trauma, suicidal thoughts, etc. LMFTs are trained to do extensive … Read More

    Many school districts have hired Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists which is helpful because they work in collaboration with school counselors. School counselors mainly target academic advising and career development while also providing social-emotional support; however, they are not clinically trained like Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT). School’s need more LMFTs to provide therapy (individual and family therapy) for those students dealing with trauma, suicidal thoughts, etc. LMFTs are trained to do extensive mental health assessments and treatment plans, and provide therapeutic services to students and families.

  12. Michael J. Smith 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I appreciated all the facts.

  13. Alicia Hatfield 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Part of the problem may be that hiring counselors is not the best approach to meeting the mental health needs of students. Schools should be hiring more social workers - not counselors. Take a peek at the education requirements for social workers compared to counselors. Social work courses are all about supporting mental health for various populations while counselors are required to take far fewer courses. This is why social workers are qualified to be … Read More

    Part of the problem may be that hiring counselors is not the best approach to meeting the mental health needs of students. Schools should be hiring more social workers – not counselors. Take a peek at the education requirements for social workers compared to counselors. Social work courses are all about supporting mental health for various populations while counselors are required to take far fewer courses. This is why social workers are qualified to be counselors, but counselors are not qualified to be social workers.

    Replies

    • April 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Is this truly the case in California? School licensure requirements vary by state so this is not accurate for all states. In Tennessee, school counselors are required to have a master's degree in counseling to gain licensure while you can be a school social worker with just a bachelor's degree. School social workers are not trained here to support the full range of academic, college/career, and social/emotional competencies school counselors are trained in and therefore … Read More

      Is this truly the case in California? School licensure requirements vary by state so this is not accurate for all states. In Tennessee, school counselors are required to have a master’s degree in counseling to gain licensure while you can be a school social worker with just a bachelor’s degree. School social workers are not trained here to support the full range of academic, college/career, and social/emotional competencies school counselors are trained in and therefore cannot just step into that role. School counselors are, however, trained to do any of the social/emotional supports school social workers do (remembering that neither regular school counselors nor social workers can diagnose or provide full blown therapy unless they have gained additional licensure in clinical mental health that allows for such and that is outside the scope of the school role).

      The issue here is that school social workers are allowed to fully do their role without all of the extra “catch all” responsibilities school counselors get put on their plate. And social workers cap their caseload at 40 in our district while school counselors have several hundred, depending on school. Capacity to do the work is there but structural constraints in staffing, policies and procedures often limit school counselors from doing what they’re trained to do, which the article mentions.

      • Stacia 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        April, To be called a social worker we must obtain licensure even at the bachelor level. In my area to be a school social worker you must be masters level or higher with a license. Half of the social workers in my district are independently licensed. Meaning they are LCSW who have proved that they can assess, diagnose and treat mental health concerns. While it is still not our job to provide therapy we are capable … Read More

        April,
        To be called a social worker we must obtain licensure even at the bachelor level. In my area to be a school social worker you must be masters level or higher with a license. Half of the social workers in my district are independently licensed. Meaning they are LCSW who have proved that they can assess, diagnose and treat mental health concerns. While it is still not our job to provide therapy we are capable of doing so.

        Masters level social workers have all of that educational training without the additional supervised hours giving them that independent licensure. So it’s not fair to say we aren’t qualified, it may just be what your district chooses to hire. Also in our district we are not able to only do one job or have a max caseload. I am responsible for the majority of the social emotional needs, suicide screenings, groups, behavior RTI, Kindness Crew, Identifying homeless students, providing the weekend food and maintaining a clothing closet on our campus. And whatever else crosses my desk. The school counselor also addresses social and emotional needs, does scheduling, college prep, and 504. Neither of us has the luxury of a caseload cap.

      • Ariel 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        April, A master's level social worker can provide "full blown therapy" in schools – for children and families. I don't know where you're getting your information. Perhaps you're only referring to states that only require bachelor's level education for social work hires. That is why a master's level social worker can do counseling, but a master's level counselor cannot do clinical therapy. Social workers are able to provide all of the supports that counselors provide … Read More

        April,

        A master’s level social worker can provide “full blown therapy” in schools – for children and families. I don’t know where you’re getting your information. Perhaps you’re only referring to states that only require bachelor’s level education for social work hires. That is why a master’s level social worker can do counseling, but a master’s level counselor cannot do clinical therapy. Social workers are able to provide all of the supports that counselors provide – in addition to assessing, monitoring and treating clinical needs. Just because a counselor can provide social-emotional support does not mean they are trained or qualified to provide any clinical support.

    • Christy 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Yes! I’ve worked in community mental health and at school districts. One of my biggest concerns is seeing and hearing how Counselor, Therapist, Social Worker and Psychologist are titles that are used interchangeably and that’s a huge problem! Everyone’s training and area of expertise is different and yet they’re often compared because they fall under the realm of “counseling.”

    • jackie holmes 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      It many school districts, school counselors are also required to have a teaching credential and classroom experience. In a lot of ways, this can be a very valuable asset, especially in working with students, parents, teachers, and other staff. Each position definitely has its place, but I don’t find one to be more valuable than the other.

    • Jennifer 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Alicia, I think your comment may be state dependent. Here in Ohio, both mental health counselors and school counselors must obtain master’s degrees and licenses to work with clients/students, while social workers can receive their licenses after their bachelor degrees.

      There is a lot of overlap in what a social worker and counselor can do, including providing counseling services.

    • Christine 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      This is not factual. While yes, I am a Licensed School Counselor, the only thing that differentiates me from a LPC is the internship route I choose. I have the same training as all other mental health counselors that get licensed as a community counselor. Saying that I am a lesser counselor because of what building I counsel inside of is insulting. School Social Workers are also necessary along with School Psychologists. All 3 of … Read More

      This is not factual. While yes, I am a Licensed School Counselor, the only thing that differentiates me from a LPC is the internship route I choose. I have the same training as all other mental health counselors that get licensed as a community counselor. Saying that I am a lesser counselor because of what building I counsel inside of is insulting. School Social Workers are also necessary along with School Psychologists. All 3 of these licensed and trained Master’s level professionals are essential in schools.