WASHINGTON, D.C. – Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-MA-5) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, bicameral legislation to help fill the critical unmet need for school-based mental health service providers in public schools across the United States. This bill directs the Department of Education to establish five-year renewable grant programs for elementary and secondary schools to hire additional school counselors.
The bill is co-led by Representatives Jahana Hayes (D-CT-5), Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14), Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), and Linda Sánchez (D-CA-38).
"We know that our students' success in school is about more than just test scores – they need the social and emotional support of mental health professionals in order to thrive," said Assistant Speaker Clark. "As kids return to school in new and unfamiliar ways coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's even more important that we invest directly in school nurses, social workers, and counselors. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act will help public schools meet the counselor-to-student ratios necessary to foster safe schools and promote the long-term health and welfare of our nation's youth."
"Mental health care is essential health care, now more than ever," said Senator Merkley. "Our country has neglected this fact for far too long, and our children are paying the price. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still greatly impacting the growth and experience of our school-aged kids, it's time to do a lot more to ensure mental health programs are available to every child in every school."
The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor, but the national average for the 2019-2020 school year was 424-to-1. For school psychologists, the recommended ratio is 500 students per provider, and 250-to-1 for school social workers.
This disparity between students' need and available resources can have critical consequences for young Americans. Mental illness affects 20 percent of American youth. Approximately half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and more than a third of students 14 and older with mental illness drop out of school. Ninety percent of young people who die by suicide had a mental illness.
Youth with access to mental health service providers in their school are 10 times more likely to seek care than youth without access, but school districts across America lack the investment and resources to provide students with the in-school treatment and care they need. Young people often find themselves waiting months for mental health treatment—an unacceptable delay, particularly at a vulnerable stage of life.
The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would tackle this crisis head-on by finally providing the necessary resources for schools to provide the mental health counselors their students need and rely on. Specifically, it would establish grants to states to help ensure that every school can meet the recommended counselor-to-student ratios.
The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Council for Mental Wellbeing, National Education Association, and School Social Work Association of America.
"Students' unmet mental health needs can be a significant obstacle to student academic, career and social/emotional development and even compromise school safety. We know the current staffing ratios are simply too high - all students deserve access to a school counselor – and this legislation is a step towards that goal," said Jill Cook, Executive Director, American School Counselor Association.
"The American Psychological Association strongly supports the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, which would help address the nationwide shortages of school-based mental health professionals, including school psychologists. This need existed even prior to COVID-19. Schools are often vital to providing health care to many children, particularly as they can be essential to both early detection and intervention efforts. School-based mental health providers are not only critical to students' behavioral well-being, but also play a key role in their learning and academic achievement, as well as helping to foster positive and healthy school climates," said Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, CEO, American Psychological Association.
"Increasing schools' capacity to provide comprehensive mental and behavioral health services for all students is predicated on access to school employed mental health professionals, like school psychologists. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a critical shortage which leaves schools and communities without access to care, which is especially critical as we address increased mental health needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would help high needs districts work toward recommended staffing ratios so that every student has access to the mental care and support they need in school so they can focus on what is most important: learning and achieving their potential," said Laurie Klose, president, National Association of School Psychologists.
"Supporting the mental health needs of our children is essential to ensure they can thrive and grow, and it's of particular importance as students and families continue to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. We applaud Senator Merkley and Representative Clark for introducing the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act because every school should have the resources necessary to recruit, train, and employ school-based, mental health professionals," said Ronn Nozoe, CEO, National Association of Secondary School Principals.
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