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Michigan schools hired 874 mental health staffers — under program set to end

Girl is stressed at desk
Michigan lawmakers in 2021 created a three-year program to help districts increase the number of mental health workers and nurses in their schools. As the program ends, districts say the funds helped provide more support to students but student mental remains a concern after the pandemic. (Shutterstock)
  • A three-year state program helped school districts hire nearly 900 mental health professionals, including social workers.
  • School officials say the program helped students and schools but now face budget decision as the funding ends.
  • Michigan lawmakers are considering separate funding to help schools pay for safety upgrades and mental health.

Distance learning. Disrupted routines. Death of loved ones. 

Such were the realities for students in 2021 when Michigan lawmakers approved a $240 million program to help schools hire more counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

New data obtained by Bridge Michigan shows schools across the state hired a combined 874 support staffers using the funding, a process complicated by widespread labor shortages.

Now, despite what experts say is an ongoing mental health crisis, that state funding is set to run out, leaving schools to make tough staffing decisions this summer as they prepare new budgets in the face of a looming “COVID cliff.” 

District leaders say the state-funded hires have helped them boost mental health supports for students, allowed staff members to provide proactive services instead of always responding to a crisis and helped them provide resources students and families can more confidently depend on. 

“These are not a luxury, these are a necessity for our kids and our families,” said RJ Webber, superintendent of Northville Public Schools, which hired the equivalent of roughly four support staffers.


If the district doesn’t find a way to pay for recent hires on its own, “we're potentially exposing a group of people who have shown a real deep commitment to wanting to serve kids that they may not be - in at least the eyes of finance - as important,” Webber told Bridge Michigan.

Districts “lucky enough to find really good counselors” in recent years could “lose a generation of people who have committed to doing this work and are good at it,” he added. 

At the Michigan Capitol, where lawmakers approved the funding in 2021, both Democrats and Republican lawmakers who spoke to Bridge said mental health supports remain a priority but acknowledged the state is in a different position than it was three years ago: Billions in federal pandemic funds had to be spent by this year, and a corresponding state surplus has run dry. 


​​The state will still likely send additional funds to schools for both mental health and school safety initiatives but will no longer support specific positions, leaving it up to districts to decide whether to keep recent hires.

In Novi, the district has hired five counselors, two nurses and three social workers using the funding set to expire.

That has complemented a broader effort in Novi, where high school senior Rithi Ramamurthy said that she and her peers are trying to normalize conversations about mental health. 

There are school events about mental health resources, and Ramamurthy is part of a student theater troupe that has performed a piece about mental health counselors. 

Woman selfie
Rithi Ramamurthy, a high school senior in Novi, told Bridge she thinks her generation is changing the way people talk about mental health experiences and concerns. (Courtesy photo: Rithi Ramamurthy)

“Our voices matter so much because we’re sort of revolutionizing what mental health looks like in society today,” she said. 

A three-year runway

The 2021 state program was designed to help Michigan school districts hire new support staff to help address student mental health concerns.

In the first year, the state would pay for the employee’s full salary, but the district would take on a growing share of the cost in the next two years.

When school districts applied for the funds, they promised they would attempt to maintain those positions permanently. They now face a critical juncture. 

State data analyzed by Bridge Michigan shows districts used the funding to hire the equivalent of 600 full-time staffers in the school year that started in July 2021, including 247 social workers, 157 school counselors, 137 nurses and 59 psychologists.

The following year, districts hired an additional 274 staffers including 109 social workers, 71 school counselors, 71 nurses and 23 psychologists. 

The state is currently collecting data on hires made in the third and final year of the program. 

The funding allowed schools to hire a combined 355 additional social workers over the first two years, which amounts to roughly 14% of the 2,805 social workers in Michigan schools last year.

The 228 additional counselors hired with the funding account for about 10% of the 2,420 counselors statewide.

The funding helped Dearborn Public Schools provide proactive student programming as staffers have been able to pivot from “reactive mode,” said executive director of special populations Mike Esseily. 

The district now has about 54 social workers, including 11 hired using the state funds, who have helped lead suicide prevention efforts and - at the high school - an anti-vaping initiative. 

Dearborn now has at least one social worker in each school building, ending rotations that had been “very problematic, because you never know when a behavioral or mental health crisis occurs,” Esseily said. 

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Mike Esseily is the executive director of special populations at Dearborn Public Schools. He said the district’s additional hires have helped add proactive mental health programming to the schools. (Courtesy photo: Mike Esseily)

The district also hired two psychologists and two nurses, he said, calling the total new hires “absolutely tremendous. And honestly, very, very needed, especially post-pandemic.”

In Northville Public Schools, which hired roughly four new mental health support staffers, the high school now has a total of eight counselors and one social emotional learning (SEL) counselor that serve all grades. As a result, the student to counselor ratio has declined. 

The SEL counselor, partially funded by the state program set to end, provides individualized support for students, is part of the district’s crisis response team and helps students transition from middle to high school. 

That counselor has been helpful for high school senior Janet Tian, who considers herself “one of the lucky people” who could speak to a trusted adult. Still, “a lot of students I feel like lack the ability to find that support within their schools and our counselors are pretty backed up with students,” she said. 

Tian said her peers often bring up stress associated with academics. And in another sign of rapid changes at Michigan schools, the back of her ID is printed with a suicide crises and prevention hotline number. 


“I think a lot of students now stress out too much about their futures,” Tian told Bridge. “I think the way that our economy is going and how hard it is to get a job without that good degree or education, a lot of people are more stressed about the future.” 

A quest to find workers

Michigan’s student-to-counselor ratio had been ranked as one of the worst in the country. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, though that number has come under scrutiny

One stalled proposal in the Michigan House would require districts to employ at least one counselor for every 250 students. The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency estimates districts would have to hire an additional 3,700 counselors to meet that mark, at a cost of roughly $400 million. 

Experts say the state could also struggle to find that many qualified people to hire. Intermediate school district administrators told Bridge last year that social workers and counselors were among their most critical vacancies. 

State Rep. Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville, told Bridge he supports the effort to get more mental health workers in schools, but even with recent funding, “it seemed like almost every school I talked to” had positions open they couldn’t fill. 

He said he is in support of a separate state program started in 2022 that helps pay graduate students as they pursue credentials to be school counselors, psychologists and social workers. 

Experts also emphasized the importance of retaining current school mental health workers.

Becky Cienki, director of behavioral health and special projects at the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, said there has been “so much pent up demand and so much excitement” around hiring more mental health workers for schools.

But “their workloads can almost become unmanageable,” which can turn into “a real retention issue,” she said. 

Nick Jaskiw, a Newaygo County school psychologist and consultant, said the state should invest in a behavioral health case management platform, use a process that allows multiple mental health providers to share notes about the same patient and create a centralized hub for training.

That would reduce the pressure individual districts face to sift through vendor pitches to find the best training, improve employees’ access to high quality resources and allow for mass training for providers and parents, ultimately reducing the stigmas around mental health issues. 

“Everything we do, we have to sustain, we have to build a future of these programs, we can’t go one, two, three years and suddenly the work is gone,” Jaskiw said.

Future of funding

While the state-funding staffing program is set to expire, several school leaders told Bridge Michigan they are working to find alternative ways to retain recently hired mental health professionals.


They will likely have options: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposal for the next year includes $300 million for mental health and school safety efforts, with half of that money projected to be ongoing for future years. 

State Rep. Regina Weiss, an Oak Park Democrat who chairs the K-12 budget subcommittee, said the potential for ongoing funding would give districts “a little bit more security in hiring those positions and retaining those positions.”  

Still, the total allocation would be slightly less than the $328 million the state gave districts for mental health and school safety initiatives this year on a per–pupil basis, which gave local officials spending discretion.  

In recent years, Michigan leaders have also approved funding for school health clinics, a pilot program that uses care teams to support high-risk individuals and a Medicaid change to expand health services to general education students.

At L’Anse Creuse Public Schools in Macomb County, officials said they plan to pool together other funds in an attempt to keep the equivalent of seven counselors, three social workers and one nurse who have been partially paid this year with $470,000 in state funding. 

When lawmakers first approved the mental health staff funding, three years seemed like a reasonable amount of time for students to recover from the pandemic, said L’Anse Creuse Superintendent Erik Edoff. 

But as the program ends, it’s clear mental health support is still needed, he said. 

“I’m certainly willing to receive funds in a different way, support them with safety money or with other types of funding,” Edoff told Bridge. “But the answer is, we need the stable funding to continue.”

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