*this piece was published by Greensboro News and Record
When NC Child’s 2019 Health Report Card came out earlier this year, it contained some sobering data: The number of North Carolina youth committing suicide has nearly doubled over the previous decade. While thoughts of suicide and actual attempts are more common among children with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, other risk factors include bullying, persistent stress, trauma, and social isolation. African American students were more than twice as likely as white students to attempt it, and gender and sexual orientation also play a major role, with 43% of LGBTQ students seriously considering suicide.
So where do our young people turn when they need help? That depends largely on how much money they have. Research shows that living in a low-income household is linked to elevated levels of mental health problems that can continue throughout the lifespan, but children of poverty–who make up 33% of all people living in poverty despite being only 23% of the population–are least likely to be connected with high-quality mental health care. Lack of access is a huge barrier for people who need help the most.
Our public education system is in a great position to fill the gaps and provide support that our children so desperately need. After all, we see them every day. Unfortunately, insufficient funding for school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers has left them so understaffed that they are constantly stuck in reactive mode, unable to utilize their training in the preventative services that can most effectively address our students’ social and mental needs.
Recommended ratios for school counselors and social workers are 1:250. This year NC students are supported by counselors at an average ratio of 1:367 and by social workers at just 1:1427. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Statewide, our ratio is 1:2083. Ratios for nurses are more complicated, as the National Association of School Nurses maintains that ideal staffing levels depend on the needs of each individual school population. However, we are not yet where we need to be on nurses either.
There are signs that lawmakers are beginning to realize that our schools need to do more along these lines. After the Parkland, FL massacre, the NC House convened a select committee on school safety which looked at the ratios mentioned above. Representative Craig Horn, who sat on that committee and also chairs the House Education Committee said in a subsequent interview that he foresaw a “significant increase in funding for mental health services.”
Michelle Hughes, Executive Director of NC Child, says there are “enormous opportunities for public schools to more effectively address the mental health needs of our students,” but that health and mental health professionals in our schools are so understaffed that funding will need to be increased incrementally over the next few years in order to get up to nationally recommended ratios.
Our students today are under more pressure than ever, and their ability to endure should not depend on their socioeconomic status. We need to provide adequate resources for our public schools’ support services so that staff can use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put professionals in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills students so clearly need.
As state legislators begin the process of crafting the 2019-21 budget, the community will be watching to see whether they are ready to make a real commitment to our students’ social and emotional well being.