K-12 Education

Brain Drain

October 22, 2020  • Shreya Joshi, Freshman at Duke University & Education and Society Program

For the past four years, the fluorescent lighting of my high school’s halls was more familiar to me than the sun. The hallway maze that initially terrified me became my second home, where I spent a good twelve hours most days. Over the years, my friends and I found places of comfort throughout the school: teachers we could confide in and the best areas to just sit and chat. Unfortunately, these comforts don’t automatically transform school into a safe space. Before students can truly consider school a place of comfort, administrators must increase access to quality mental health care.

The stigma surrounding mental health constitutes much of the opposition and means students are already hesitant to seek help. The discernment between physical and mental health exacerbates the care gap. It’s easy to tell people that you are going to the doctor, that you have a broken bone, or that you have a cold. When that ailment is anxiety, chronic stress, or depression, though, suddenly everyone goes silent. No one is offering doctors they could refer you to. The stigma around mental health dicates that any issue you may have is inherent to your character, even though the brain is still an organ.

As a result of this stigma, there is a resounding need for mental health resources in schools; one that is not being met. After all, in the technological age, Generation Z is facing unique mental health challenges. The 2019 American Psychological Association Stress in America Survey found that Gen Z is around 27% more likely to report their mental health as fair or poor, in contrast with millennials and Generation X. There are also troubling barriers to accessing care, worsened especially along racial and socioeconomic lines. People of color not only have less access to mental health services, but they are also likely to receive sub-par treatment on the off chance they can gain access to it. In addition, minorities tend to terminate any treatment much sooner than they should. With such clear disparities in mental health access across the country, schools could bridge the gap by offering substantive, equitable mental health resources.

Schools administer basic hearing, eyesight and scoliosis tests; there’s no reason mental health should be treated any differently.  Mental health professionals are essential for students perpetually under pressure. By definition, professionals in schools “play a significant role in identifying, meeting and connecting students in need of additional mental health services.” In the short term, having mental health counseling ensures a student is able to focus on their schooling, effectively process life events, and be referred to other medical professionals if necessary. Sometimes, the counselor’s office is just a simple, safe place to exist and process, when students have nowhere else to do so.

While most schools already have guidance counselors tasked in part with addressing mental health issues, very few schools provide mental health counselors who are solely mental health counselors. My high school, for example, had counselors who were in charge of recommendation letters, scheduling, disciplinary actions, and mental health counseling for about 300 kids each.. This is what largely differentiates mental health from physical health in schools; counselors serve as shapeshifting secretaries while nurses are able to simply be nurses. 

The simplest solution is to ensure students have access to mental health counselors. The American Counseling Association has tried to alleviate the dearth of funding, securing $70 million in grants for school counselors in FY 2018 alone. In addition, as municipalities across the country reallocate more of their funding towards social programs, schools can prioritize hiring mental health professionals with their funding. Finally, many schools have a number of counselors that do multiple jobs, as my high school did, which means none of them can truly focus on every aspect of their jobs. Simply splitting up the work – as in giving half the counselors administrative responsibilities and the other half mental health counseling responsibilities – would provide another solution. While, yes, each counselor would be in charge of more kids, they would still be able to focus more effectively on mental health concerns, which they cannot and do not do not right now.

Mental health issues are normal, not concerns that merit ostracization. It’s time the help that is needed is readily available in schools so that students finally can truly consider school a second home.