For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Charlie Nunes is the third in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

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Point blank: being a teenager is stressful. 

Change is stressful. For all teenagers, change is inevitable. Friendships evolve from best friends to strangers, classes get harder, and emotions begin to rule — it all happens in one place — in a high school. 

Being a teenager in a global pandemic and dealing with deteriorating mental health is also stressful. Unfortunately, the bitter reality a lot of us face is not alleviated by high-school counselors. These adults are marketed to be at our disposal to make schedule changes, deal with crises, and file complaints. It’s too much for them to handle, but it’s not their fault — counselors are understaffed and overworked, sometimes missing their lunches to help students. 

The American School Counselors Association suggests a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio in every high school. Washington State has a ratio of 499:1. This caseload causes counselors to only catch the “extremes,” like the students who act out and get in fights or those on track to be valedictorian. 

According to my counselor, he was able to meet with 1-2 students a day in person, which accounts for .05% of his caseload as opposed to 4-5 during virtual learning, or about 1%. As a result, there are going to be parts of the student body that get missed. I was one of those students. 

I have been a straight-A student and involved in numerous extracurriculars almost my entire academic career, so I never needed any assistance academically. However, I was in and out of therapy for two and a half years and stopped going about halfway through my sophomore year of high school. Things were better for a while. Then the pandemic turned my world upside-down. 

First things first, I’m an extrovert; my Myers-Briggs type is ENFP (energetic and motivational) and I thrive off social interaction, always have, probably always will. When I learned we would be taking a two-week break in the middle of last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, I wasn’t super excited. Honestly, I like school, I enjoy working, and most of all, I like someone telling me what the schedule is and I like adhering to it. 

The two-week break turned into four weeks. Then we started getting emails about how to work Google Classroom and the different systems each of my seven teachers would have for attendance.

It was a lot. 

I started to miss classes. Being online, I looked at them as optional courses. I began staying in my bed 20 hours out of the day. I physically could not leave; it was too much work. I had slipped back into my depression and with that, my grades did, too. 

My mom prompted me to email my high-school counselor. His response was essentially, just get out for a walk, log into your classes, everybody is stressed right now, not just you. We had limited interactions in the past, and it became clear this man had never dealt with clinical depression in his life, at least not the way I was experiencing it. The seemingly never-ending cycle of stressing over my falling grades yet not having the motivation to fix them was taking a toll on me.

So, I went outside of school and back to my own therapist. I worked with her to develop a schedule I could adhere to and create a school-like environment in my house. She encouraged me to reach out to my teachers and explain the anomaly of my dropping grades. The vicious cycle of dealing with the consequences of not doing anything had been broken at last.

High school is arguably the most formative years of our lives and most of us are currently experiencing it through a screen — students shouldn’t have to sacrifice their education for their mental health or vice versa. The vague and umbrella-like job description school counselors abide by forces them to be a jack-of-all-trades. This isn’t fair to students without the resources to get the help they need outside of school and counselors who simply aren’t equipped to deal with teenage mental health. 

Recently, there was a bill passed through the Washington state Senate that’s awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature: Senate Bill 5030. It details a plan districts must create involving school counseling services. Although the bill covers the bare minimum, it still doesn’t address the hoops counselors and students must jump through in regards to working toward better mental health. Counseling services should include a trained ear with a psychology background to listen and talk through difficult situations, not just improving “achievement, attendance and discipline.” Because those aren’t the only things that matter. However, the bill is a step toward improving school counselors’ efficacy in regards to student well-being and should be celebrated as such. This conversation isn’t over, but it’s a “win” to be considered a conversation at all. 

The fact that I got to a point where I needed a therapist and I was able to get one is a huge privilege — a privilege not everyone has. Too often, teenagers’ very real feelings are dismissed as being “moody” or “hormonal.” Education on mental health needs to start where education starts: school. Counselors are asked to do everything and because of that, there is no possible way they can do everything perfectly. The responsibility that comes with anything from changing classes to college essays to mental breakdowns is huge and it’s ignorant to turn a blind eye. 

Point blank: being in high school is hard, and it’s only going to get harder.

Counselors should specialize in fewer matters and do those well, so students know they can get the help they need. The in-betweens like me are getting pushed further down as the extremes get more polar. On average, counselors have more students to meet with than there are days in the school year. That only highlights the fundamental problem of picking and choosing which students need more help and which are fine without.

Schools need to do better about remembering the in-betweens, by making sure everyone has access to trained counselors when they need them, or else it’ll just be another story about how the education system failed.