(WWLP) – Educators and counselors in school districts are calling for more resources to ensure that students’ mental health needs are met following years of growing demand. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the demand for services.

“For several years now, we have simply not had enough counselors in our schools. Caseloads have been too large for too long. Counselors provide invaluable service to our school communities and are necessary to create and maintain the kind of culture and climate we want for all of our students and educators,” said Bob Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association (MASCA).

MASCA cites the following issues as urgently needing attention:

  • Professionals recommend a counselor-to-student ratio of 1-to-250, while in Massachusetts that ratio is 1 to 364.
  • Students in communities of color have been disproportionately affected by trauma during the pandemic.
  • 1 in 360 children lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19.
  • Nationally, 70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 76% of schools also reported an increase in staff voicing concerns about students exhibiting symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.

During a panel discussion organized by the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, speakers discussed the challenges and realities facing school counselors; how counselors’ roles have evolved in the last decade; and what students need to be provided with.

Tama Lang, a school counselor in Chicopee and MASCA’s 2022 Counselor of the Year says that the mental health needs of students have intensified and agreed counselors sometimes don’t have enough resources. “I wish I could clone another one of me to maintain the culture of the school and the emotional needs of students,” expressed Lang. Lang says there are over 350 students that need additional resources.

Counselors acknowledge that student mental concerns were a concern before the pandemic, but the pandemic has increased the needs dramatically. “Many of our students need more mental and behavioral support, but services have become limited,” said Tracy Little-Sasanecki, president of the Springfield Education Association and a school counselor.

Lang says mental health has become a chronic disease of the youth. All counselors are seeing a rise in anxiety and PTSD as some of the mental health concerns, and feel they don’t have enough services to help with these student conditions.

The national average wait time is 8 to 10 years for students to wait for a diagnosis of a mental illness and treatment by a Certified Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS). “We don’t have to wait to ensure preventative care,” said John Crocker, director of School Mental Health and Behavioral Services at Methuen Public Schools and the founder and director of the Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium.

For counselors to be orientated, there needs to be student support, the appropriate number of staff members, and evidence-based therapy. Counselors are urging that if more counselors are hired, they are leveraged properly with resources and training. More counselors would allow for more scheduling and meetings with students to be less difficult.

There is a need for counselors to become adapted to robust school-based learning, identifying signs of suicide, and career exploration. Schools have already been engaged with career connection fairs and Credit For Life to help students to also succeed in life. Including individualized implementation promises and dedicated curriculum in classrooms, creating the student support system, and having adjustment counselors to refer to.

“Now more than ever before they are a key component to the success of our students,” said Little-Sasanecki. “Many students are hurting but aren’t able to get the help they need based on the little services we have. Many of us counselors go beyond the workday.” Little-Sasanecki says how essential it is to develop relationships with students and families.

“They are just not test scores, they are people.”

Tracy Little-Sasanecki, president of the Springfield Education Association and a school counselor

Massachusetts State Representative Sally Kerans agrees. “We all know the value of the services you provide, services can sound very clinical, but I think of the sort of human connection you make, such an important investment.”

According to Bardwell, the number of counselors needed will depend on the district. “Some school counseling ratios are very small,” he said.