Since the start of school last year, Seattle students have urged administrators to hire more mental health specialists to help them feel safer and more supported in their learning environments.

But districts here in Washington and nationwide have struggled to hire enough school psychologists, counselors, and social workers — even as student mental health needs have become more apparent in the wake of school shootings and pandemic-related stresses.

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In Seattle, students have staged rallies and protests for stronger COVID-19 protocols, endured school closures because of threats of violence and teacher sickouts, and returned temporarily to remote learning in a few cases because of coronavirus spikes.

“It’s easy to see that we all need more mental health support in all of our schools,” said Jensen Perdue, a counselor at Ingraham High School. “It’s hard to get into the prevention mode when our case loads are so high and mental health needs are so high and they [students] aren’t able to get long-term mental health care pretty much anywhere.”

The Seattle Student Union, a newly formed youth activism group, led the charge this past academic year, calling for more mental health specialists — specifically asking for at least one counselor per every 200 students. That’s a tighter ratio than the one recommended by the American School Counselor Association, which suggests one counselor per 250 students.  

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Currently, Seattle Schools is not close to either. It has one counselor per 375 students, and it would take about $16.6 million to hire enough counselors to meet student demands, said Jolynn Berge, assistant superintendent for business and finance. 

Seattle Schools expects a staff of 133 school counselors in the fall, 130 of whom are funded by the state, according to district data. The district would need to hire 119 more counselors or social workers to meet the threshold set by student activists, Berge said.

The student union has also asked SPS to hire more mental health experts of color. That’s been a challenge because there isn’t much diversity in the field, Berge said.

Seattle-area youth created this guide to connect teens to multicultural mental health care

While the district won’t be able to meet the students’ requests, they are looking for ways to respond to their mental health needs.

One is to replicate a program that has been successful in recruiting teachers of color, Berge said, such as the Academy for Rising Educators (ARE), a certification program focused on training a more diverse group of educators that comes with financial support.

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The district now employs family support workers who connect families with community resources and provide referrals for those needing medical, social, or emotional counseling, tutoring, and mentoring services. The pool of family support workers is more diverse than the mental health specialists at SPS, Berge said, and one idea is to create a program to train these family support workers to become school counselors or social workers.  

School counselors focus on three areas: academic counseling, social-emotional learning, and college and career readiness, said Jensen Perdue, a counselor at Ingraham High School. 

Counselors are trained in mental health because it affects every student in some capacity, said Perdue, who’s been a counselor for seven years. She’s long talked to students who are experiencing anxiety and depression, but this year she said the needs were greater.

“I had plenty of students come up to me and straight-up ask how to get a therapist,” she said. “That’s new for me — very few would go right out and say it.”

The waitlists for mental health services were “astronomical,” Perdue said, and there were even waitlists to get in the referral lines. 

School social workers are among the smaller group of mental health experts in Seattle Schools. The next school year, the state will fund about 10 of the district’s 21 social workers. 

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Social workers assist and provide support with mental health and behavioral concerns, through individual or group counseling sessions. They also provide academic support in the classroom. 

“In general, my job is to kind of remove those barriers that disconnect the kids from people or learning in school,” said Julie Sullenszino, a social worker at Dearborn Park Elementary. “I’m kind of always looking at what mental health aspects might be percolating in a young student — anxiety, depression — some of those emerge and some of those are just a gap in skills.”

For example, if a kid is having behavioral issues that would normally result in discipline, social workers usually step in first, Sullenszino said.

Educators have seen upticks in behavioral problems, especially among younger students who lost social skills or didn’t have the time to learn them, or failed to learn how to interact in a classroom setting.

Seattle Schools hired additional social workers at 12 elementary schools this past year using federal pandemic assistance, according to district officials. The district placed these social workers at schools that didn’t have that kind of support staff previously. Now, about 3,500 more elementary students are receiving mental health services, officials estimate.

All of Seattle’s 62 elementary schools have at least a part-time counselor or social worker, officials said. All middle and high schools have full-time counselors. The district also partners with 29 King County-based health centers and contracts with 17 community agencies to offer mental health supports.

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SPS also employs psychologists, who work with a smaller population of students.

Their main role is to evaluate students who have Individualized Education Plans, Berge said. IEPs are put together by various school officials for students who have disabilities and require special-education services. 

Youth with IEPs are required to have a reevaluation every three years, Berge said, and these take up the bulk of a school psychologist’s time. It’s a reason why psychologists are paid, in part, through special-education funds — the program Seattle Schools spends the most money on outside of general education. Rather than being assigned to specific schools like counselors and social workers, psychologists are assigned to students, Berge said.

Seattle Schools is slated to have 62 psychologists on staff in the fall, and about three of those are funded by the state, according to district data. The 62 psychologists cost just over $11 million, Berge said.

School nurses have also felt the weight of the mental health crises this past school year. The district will have about 87 nurses on staff in the fall, and the state funds about 28 of the positions. 

State funding for psychologists, school counselors, social workers, and nurses has increased since the 2021-22 school year. But Berge says mental health services and supports go beyond just the experts.

“I think all of our school staff are addressing mental health needs every day,” Berge said. “We have so many students in crisis.”