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Opinion | It’s time — past time — to focus on mental health in Michigan schools

Thanks to COVID, heading back to school has been a different experience each fall, and this year is no exception. With test scores down and students spending much of the last two years learning online, many students are returning to school with social-emotional issues about learning, working with others, and facing life in general. This means this school year, which was expected to be business as usual, is still going to be anything but.

patrick o'connor
Patrick O’Connor is the CEO of College is Yours and a long-time school counselor. (Courtesy photo)

It's clear school counselors are playing a major role in meeting the needs of students to process these effects and find a way to move forward. State policy makers have responded to calls for improved mental health services in schools, with record funding of $250 million for mental health services. This gives educators the flexibility and resources needed to make sure students gain a stronger sense of self, as well as the skills needed to succeed in living and learning in a post-pandemic world.

This unparalleled commitment to school-based mental health services will only succeed if local school leaders make the most of them. The steps needed to do that include:

Appropriate staffing: Michigan holds one of the highest student-counselor ratios in the nation, with a whopping 638 students per counselor. Common sense suggests this is just way too many students for counselors to conduct an effective mental health program. Hiring additional school counselors has been a task that’s long overdue in our state. Now that we have the money to do so, it’s time to make the most of those dollars.

Best use of time: Too many adults remember their school counselor as the person who changed their schedule, or did lunch duty. Important as those tasks might be, they have little to do with mental health, and nothing to do with the vital skills where counselors have received training. School officials need to work with counselors to review their duties, and maximize counselor time with students on growth in mental health.

Tailored curriculum: With a number of new, pre-packaged mental health programs available to schools, it may be tempting to pick one and see it as an easy add-on to the current counseling curriculum. School leaders would do well to work closely with the current counseling team to make sure any new mental health elements complement the existing offerings, and blend with the school’s larger academic and personal goals.

Team-based support: School counselors are rightly viewed as the leaders of a school’s mental health curriculum, but this doesn’t mean they should be the sole implementers of the curriculum. A team-based approach to mental health, including teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, coaches, and parents, will surround the student with support and opportunity, two attributes students desperately need after two very challenging years. Adequate time for training, practice and feedback need to be provided so counselors can nurture these partners forward.

Community support: This same kind of comprehensive support can be achieved when school mental health officials partner with community leaders to extend an atmosphere of support to students outside school. Local social workers, social agencies, therapeutic centers, youth programs, and religious leaders should be engaged to create an atmosphere of support that makes it easy for students to seek any help they might need. This should also include the business community; anywhere students spend time after school is a place where mental health healing can begin, and the more partners a community has, the better.

Plans for the future: Development of a strong sense of self often includes the development of plans for the future, and that includes the counselor’s role as a college and career counselor. Too much counseling literature in the last two years has emphasized the need for better mental health programming in schools, without specifying just what that programming should include.  Self-esteem, self-awareness and effective interpersonal skills certainly play a key role in this programming, but it’s just as important for students to develop an understanding of what they could become.

Goal setting can create a sense of purpose in a student who would otherwise look at their current situation and lose hope. It’s the fresh start students often yearn for, a chance to escape the limitations their peers, community, circumstances, and family have placed upon them.  

At a time when too many students have felt boxed in by the few choices COVID has left them, what better time to expose them to vistas of new opportunity and hope, the outcomes of a successful college and career awareness curriculum?

It’s comforting to know we can reasonably expect a school year that feels a little more like business as usual. Creating a student-centered school where mental health comes first can go a long way to making the most of that opportunity.

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