Delaware has raised its investment in early childhood education in recent years, as part of an effort to improve outcomes as children grow up. Now, lawmakers are making a similar proposal to invest in mental health services for elementary students, in hopes of reducing the impact of mental health issues when they reach high school and beyond.
Twenty percent of middle and high school age students have or will have a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To help those students, the American School Counselor Association recommends schools have a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.
In Delaware, there’s one counselor for every 427 students. Just looking at elementary schools, the ratio is even higher with each counselor serving about 550 students, according to Brandon Townsend, president of the Delaware School Counselor Association.
That high ratio has resulted in students at risk for mental health problems going unidentified. Students like Anne Slease’s son. He came close to committing suicide at the age of 18. “I had no idea how to help him,” Slease said. “He was never identified as being at risk, and he never received any mental health prevention or intervention at school. And they could have helped change the course of his life.” Slease now works as director of advocacy and education for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware chapter. She said about 50 percent of mental illnesses begin by age 14. “Usually they don’t arrive suddenly. They evolve over time, often connected to trauma, distress, or unmet needs.”
State House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst says while the state has focused on early childhood academic performance, the trauma students experience at home or in their community can’t be ignored.
“We forget that the kids come to school with a lot of baggage, and if we’re not addressing that, how do we expect them to learn,” Longhurst said.
It’s not always clear which students need help. That makes a lower ratio of counselor to student interaction even more important.
“Some are quiet and they skate by, others are more traumatic and they’re going to act out and it’s more really identifying all different levels of problems that are going on within their lives and trying to find ways to correct it,” Longhurst said.
Longhurst will propose legislation that calls for the state to follow the 250-to-1 ratio guidelines put forth by the ASCA.
“If we can start here, then in junior high we’ll have less students, and then in high school we’ll have less students, and then we’re going to have people out in the community that aren’t going to be as big as a problem that we have today that we’re facing,” Longhurst said.
It’s not just good enough to have more employees labeled as counselors, though. Townsend says they actually need to be allowed to do their jobs and not be called on to fill in for teachers and administrators.
In a survey of Delaware counselors, Townsend said 45 percent report spending much of their day teaching classes, leaving less time to help students in crisis.
“You can see all the different angles that school counselors are being pulled into and the different things they’re being asked to do that are outside the realm of their training and expertise,” he said.
A companion bill calls for high-needs elementary schools and charter schools to have a school-based health center to provide for the mental and physical health needs of students.
“We are talking about treating the whole child in an innovative, personal way, from flu shots to strep tests to mental health care, reading help,” said state Rep. Kim Williams, who is sponsoring the bill. “These school-based health centers are critical.”
A high needs-school is identified by the state as having a high number of low-income students, English language learners, or students with disabilities.
There are 32 high school health centers in Delaware. This program would take that model to elementary schools.
The wellness center at Eisenberg Elementary School in New Castle serves about 50 percent of students. Many of those have been exposed to some sort of trauma at home.
“Eighty percent of those kids weren’t on the school’s radar,” said Forest Watson of Life Health Centers which manages the wellness center. “Sometimes it’s way too late, this is why this bill makes so much sense, if we can do early childhood intervention and prevention, we can target these kids that we had no idea were on the radar.”