Tag Archives: School Counseling

School Counseling

Racial bias in gifted and talented programs

By Scott Sleek September 26, 2023

Flaws in testing and racial biases among teachers and school counselors are some of the reasons many Black boys are left out of advanced learning programs and misdirected into special education, according to the article “Inequitable representation of Black boys in gifted and talented education, Advanced Placement, and special education” published in the October issue of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (JMCD). The report is part of a special issue of the journal, “Understanding the Black Male Experience: Recommendations for Clinical, Community, and School Settings,” guest edited by Isaac Burt, Erik M. Hines and James L. Moore III.

headshot of Donna Y. Ford

Donna Y. Ford

In the article, Donna Y. Ford, a distinguished professor of education and human ecology at Ohio State University (OSU), and her colleagues describe why teachers too rarely refer Black boys to gifted and talented education programs and too often send them to special education. Educators often develop erroneous and harmful perceptions of Black boys as lazy, unruly and apathetic, the authors note. Furthermore, tests often lack cultural context for Black students and favor those who excel at pen-and-paper exams rather than oral expression, they say.

headshot of James L. Moore III

James L. Moore III

The co-authors include Moore, distinguished professor of urban education and inaugural executive director of the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male at OSU; Tanya J. Middleton, a clinical assistant professor of counselor education at OSU; and Hines, a professor of counseling at George Mason University.

Counseling Today recently spoke with Ford and Moore about their JMCD article and the issue of racial bias in academic placement. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)


What motivated you to write this JMCD article?

Ford: In 2023, racism is still a problem, anti-Blackness is a problem, inequity is pervasive, and underrepresentation of Black boys in gifted and talented programs is a problem. I grew up believing in the United Negro College Fund, whose mantra is: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In the article, we also talk about how a mind is a terrible thing to erase. And that’s why we want more Black boys in gifted and talented education, getting the services they deserve and need.

Moore: It was an opportunity to integrate the gifted education literature with the multicultural counseling literature. These combinations are not very common in the counseling literature.

Generally speaking, Black young men and boys occupy a distinctive space in American society. Too often this group is seen as a part of a group rather than the individual. There are inescapable experiences, regardless of whether your family comes from an affluent community or from humble beginnings. You can look in any school district in America, and Black men will be grossly underrepresented in gifted and talented programs or advanced academic programs. But they will be overrepresented in special education.

a group of young children eating lunch at school, the focus is on a young Black boy

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

Ford: Black boys make up 9% of our school students, and they make up only 3.5% of students in gifted and talented education. So they are the most underrepresented of any group. We need to keep highlighting this fact, not just to teachers but to school counselors as well. When students are disengaged because they’re not challenged, then they become an underachiever, and it contributes to this overwhelming achievement gap.

What are the most critical points that you would like people to take away from the article?

Ford: We must address test bias and use alternative methods of testing, evaluating and assessing Black boys. In this article, for example, we talk about nonverbal measures and nonverbal subscales.

We must also stop placing our Black boys in special education because when you get services that you don’t need, there’s nothing special about special education. It is imperative that educators be careful and avoid racial bias when placing Black children in special education programs.

And then finally, culture matters and representation matters. We need to be culturally responsive and antiracist, and we need more minoritized professionals in our schools.

Moore: Broadly speaking, we need schools that adapt to students, rather than forcing students to adapt to schools. One of the things that we’ve written extensively about is deficit thinking and how it often becomes self-fulfilling. When a student has perceptions that the teacher doesn’t believe in their academic ability, it tends to have negative effects on their educational outcomes. It’s important that teachers communicate accurately and recognize that some communication styles convey to some students that they’re incapable.

Another issue is representation. When Black students enter gifted programs, they frequently opt out or want to get out of these advanced academic programs because there isn’t representation that is reflective of their experience or of people who look like them. In turn, they are sometimes asked to speak on subject matters that may be viewed as speaking on behalf of the group, and we know that creates anxiety, which then impacts performance.

What role do counselors play in working toward solutions for these issues?

Moore: School counselors play a critical role in students taking advanced academic courses. If the counselor only sees deficits, it will play out in how they consult and collaborate with teachers in helping students make decisions, or in how they make recommendations for the students to enter certain academic courses. So, it’s important that school counselors interrogate any deficit thinking that they may have about an individual. And sometimes the deficit thinking might be who their parents are or where they live. And we make broad assumptions. Fundamentally, I believe that great minds come from every ZIP code.

The other way counselors can help is with social, personal issues. Often, when students leave their comfort zone — and that might be friends or representation of their racial group or gender — and they enter a domain where there’s no one to draw inference from, it creates anxiety. So school counselors can help provide social emotional support. They may also need to help the student’s parents understand the significance of advanced academic curriculum and what the benefits are.

What are some problems associated with the current way we test for advanced academic programs?

Ford: Tests are biased, and in our article, we discuss two reasons for this. The first issue is the verbal loading of standardized achievement tests. The tests require an extensive vocabulary, and it does not take into consideration how Black individuals speak. We speak mainstream English, but the majority of us also speak Black English, which is a language, not a dialect.

Verbal loading means you have to have a certain vocabulary. You have to phrase things in a certain way or know certain words. And that is problematic.

The second issue is the cultural loading, which means the test items and correct responses are based on the culture of upper-income white people.

These two issues can be seen in the testing question “How are work and play alike?” We have to consider why the person writing this test chose the terms “work” and “play” and how others may interpret them. Some Black children, for example, may say, “Well, they both have four letters.” Although that’s true, they would get zero points. Instead, they may be expected to say something like, “They’re both something that you enjoy.” But this isn’t true for everyone. Do you think that sanitation workers dealing with the smell of your trash go home talking about, “Oh, I just love my job”? No. So tests are linguistically biased against Black populations and the rest of minoritized groups.

The underreferral of Black boys to gifted and talented education and the linguistically and culturally loaded tests are a double whammy that denies our Black boys opportunities to be challenged and reach their full potential.


Watch the entire interview with Donna Y. Ford and James L. Moore III at Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development Special Issue – Authors Interview – YouTube.

Scott Sleek is a freelance writer and editor in Silver Spring, Maryland. He specializes in content related to social and behavioral sciences and clinical care.

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


Making schools more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students 

By Stephanie Opiela  August 15, 2023

child in denim t-shirt with rainbow symbol, wearing an orange backpack outdoor, standing outside


In working with children and families who have experienced trauma, I have accompanied a diverse range of LGBTQ+ clients on their healing journeys. Sometimes their challenges arise from a single significant event, and other times, a collection of circumstances and support system failures contribute to their struggle.  

When a person mentions a “support system,” the first thing that often comes to mind is one’s family or peer network. However, support systems can also include organizations, and when it comes to children, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, schools can serve as additional and vital systems of support.  

It is a well-supported fact in mental health research that LGBTQ+ individuals are at greater risk for mental health challenges than those from other groups. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those who identify as LGBTQ+ are nearly three times more likely to develop a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety and are significantly more likely to attempt suicide and abuse substances. The risks are especially high for adolescents and young adults, with LGBTQ+ youth ages 10–24 being four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. 

Because many students in districts across the nation are part of the LGBTQ+ community and use mental health services, schools can play an important role in creating an inclusive and trauma-informed environment to prioritize mental health prevention and intervention. In this article, I share one student’s story and offer advice on how counselors and schools can create a supportive environment for all students.  

One student’s experience as an LGBTQ+ individual  

CJ (a pseudonym) is a high school senior who began receiving mental health services primarily to address ongoing challenges with anxiety and depression. CJ acknowledged that while a lot of progress has been made when it comes to creating a sense of inclusivity for LGBTQ+ people in their current community, they “have never truly felt included.” 

Although CJ is comfortable and confident in their gender and sexual identity, they expressed that their emotional safety is challenged on a daily basis living as an LGBTQ+ individual. CJ described the deep hurt that accompanies the perpetuation of stereotypes, saying, “There is this constant stream of negative feedback on who I am as a person.”  

CJ found it particularly hard to trust anyone. CJ believed that some teachers and students will “treat them as a completely different person” after learning CJ is an LGBTQ+ individual, despite having previously welcomed them into their social and physical spaces.  

CJ further described the unmistakable discomfort that others display when they are outed in conversations: “There is always that pause — that deafening pause. Conversations shut down when they learn that about me. They try to escape it as quickly as possible.”  

Inevitably, anger, confusion, a sense of shame and feelings of rejection accompany these all-too-frequent interactions with peers and adults. CJ explained that other LGBTQ+ students on campus tend to “stick together” for social and emotional support, but this does not diminish the challenges that accompany identifying as an LGBTQ+ person. CJ described the mental energy they must spend distinguishing safe people and spaces at school, and the crushing disappointment and loss that come with learning that someone is nonaffirming. “I wish everyone here was super welcoming, but that is too much to expect. There are people here that want nothing to do with someone like me, and it hurts,” CJ said. 

CJ shared that when they came out to their family, they felt a renewed sense of freedom and happiness, but they quickly realized that sense of freedom did not translate to their school and community environments. CJ’s confidence and comfort began to crumble as they consistently found that they could not out themself unless they had determined a person or group was safe, which proved difficult to do.  

Constant disappointment can take a toll on even the most resilient of individuals. “I’ve told many people in your line of work [mental health] that I’ve become less and less comfortable telling people that I am gay,” said CJ. “I’ve even gone out of my way to try and make people more comfortable by avoiding that topic.”  

This transition — from being open and free to being guarded and cautious — was a significant loss that CJ continues to grieve, all while carrying the burden of other people’s discomfort with who they are. Like many others who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, CJ knew from early on that they were “different” from many of their peers. Their identity was not something that they “chose or created” but just who they were.  

CJ shared one instance when their class engaged in a discussion about whether people were “born gay.” The consensus among the teacher and most students was that this was not possible but rather that homosexuality was something people chose. CJ described feeling outnumbered, unsafe and angry that a group with an entirely different set of beliefs and experiences was explaining CJ’s identity as a choice, without having any degree of understanding of who CJ was, what their life experience had been or the hurt that the conversation was causing them in that moment.  

Just as many individuals who struggle with anxiety are constantly operating on high alert, many who identify as LGBTQ+ must scan for indicators of safety and inclusion, and negative experiences further reinforce a lack of trust in others and a decreased sense of safety. For this to be happening at school — where students spend most of their daily lives with the expectations of safety and support — has concerning implications. This becomes even more serious when one considers students who already struggle with anxiety and depression because of other factors. 

Despite continuing support from mental health and medical professionals, CJ struggled with ongoing invalidation and oppression, and at more than one point, this bright, funny and engaging student was hospitalized because they had become suicidal. While psychiatric hospitals are a crucial part of mental health care system, they are not usually the warm, supportive and healing environments that we would like to believe they are. On multiple occasions, CJ spent days away from loved ones, with no contact with the outside world and surrounded by other patients who carried their own horrific traumatic experiences.  

This is the cycle that many of our most vulnerable students endure when they do not have safe, supportive and affirming environments to be who they are while they spend their mental and emotional energy connecting with others, tackling academic demands and navigating the stress of adolescence. They survive until the weight of all their turmoil becomes too much and they fall apart. Most of the time, counselors are fortunate enough to pull them back to safety, but sometimes, these students slip away. 

Steps to creating an inclusive environment 

Providing and promoting an inclusive, welcoming and trauma-informed school environment is more critical than ever for ensuring that all students, including LGBTQ+ students, can experience the sense of safety and belonging that they deserve. How can this be accomplished?  

  • Create a culture shift. School staff must first be willing to take responsibility for all students in the school. This necessitates learning from one another through communication, collaboration and professional development opportunities. Great strides have been made through the use of multitiered systems of support teams, in which staff from various departments and specialties come together to develop appropriate interventions for students who exhibit academic, behavioral or mental health needs.  
  • Become trauma informed. Establishing a safe and inclusive school setting requires that staff be trauma informed. Staff must be willing to recognize their own implicit biases and understand that everyone has their own story. All staff — not just teachers and administrators — need to be educated and equipped to recognize basic signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and know who to contact if they have concerns about a student’s well-being.  
  • Provide resources. Students and families need to be aware of the resources available to them on and off campus. All staff should be familiar with key resources, including local mental health authorities, LGBTQ+ organizations, crisis hotlines and bilingual providers. In addition, posters with inclusive language celebrating diversity and addressing the stigmas surrounding mental health challenges need to be visible throughout campuses. 
  • Make time for connection. Staff should make an effort to learn the names of all their students and use their correct names and pronouns. This will allow each student to feel valued. It also models respect and acceptance for all students. To create or strengthen students’ support systems, staff should also establish regular contact with families to develop trust and build a successful partnership. 

Inclusivity and equality are not new concepts, but there is still much work to be done. Our work as counselors matters because our students matter. My hope in sharing CJ’s story is for school counselors, administrators and staff to recognize the potential impact they can have in the lives of all students by being an advocate and resource on campuses and in their communities.  


headshot of the author, Stephanie Opiela, standing beside a tree

Stephanie Opiela is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor with over 14 years of experience serving clients with histories of adversity. Most of her career has been dedicated to serving children and families affected by abuse, first in a therapist role and then as a program director and clinical director for local children’s advocacy centers. Her work with medical professionals, law enforcement, child and family protective services, and district attorney’s offices continues to fuel her passion for promoting trauma-informed care in systems that are designed to protect children. She currently serves as a school-based therapist for a campus of 2,500 students. Contact her at stephanie.opiela@dsisdtx.us. 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Don’t forget school counselors on the list of first responders 

By Jetaun Bailey, Cheryl Allen, and Morgan Alford August 4, 2023

School counselor sitting in a classroom with a pen and clipboard. Talking to a teenage student.


The American School Counselor Association states that school counselors assist students with concentrating on their academic, professional and social/emotional growth so these students can succeed in school and be ready to lead fulfilling lives as contributing members of society. Based on our experience, however, there is a significant role related to mental health — which falls under the heading of social and emotional growth — that is often disregarded. School counselors are first responders to mental health concerns. 

Who are first responders? 

The U.S. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 defines “first responders” as “those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence and the environment, including emergency response providers …, emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works and other skilled support personnel … that provide immediate support services during prevention, response and recovery operations.” 

The national Mental Health First Aid program has broadened the first responder role to include people who, through specialized training, can identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use problems. This cutting-edge public education training enables individuals to approach someone who may be experiencing a crisis or developing a mental health or drug use problem and provide that person with the early support and treatment they require. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing and the Missouri Department of Mental Health manage and operate Mental Health First Aid, a training course to help people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorder. 

Unfortunately, it seems that many people don’t naturally associate school counselors with the role of mental health first responder, even though it is imperative to their work (and the same holds true for teachers). In fact, school counselors may naturally take on the role of mental health first responder without even realizing it.  

The school counselor’s role in responding to mental health crises extends beyond simply making the proper referrals to the right people. School counselors must maintain control and defuse situations before making these referrals, which might happen right away or may take days. School counselors engage with students who are having suicidal thoughts or emotional breakdowns caused by loss or personal trauma. Other common scenarios include students struggling with anxiety or depression after receiving a poor grade, a failure to live up to parental expectations causing issues at home, and inferiority complexes that feed into low self-esteem and a desire to quit school. The school counselor must be prepared to handle these mental health crises as a first responder even though the crises may occur at any time throughout any given day in the school building. 

School districts are increasingly offering in-house mental health services coordinated in conjunction with outside providers. However, this does not diminish the responsibility that the school counselor has at any given time to respond quickly and convey concerns to the mental health coordinator at the school. For instance, during the time that we (Jetaun and Cheryl) worked together as a school counselor and school counselor intern in Alabama, Hurricane Katrina caused a surge in the number of children transferring from schools in Louisiana. We suddenly found ourselves trying to help an influx of new students with issues such as missing grades, ongoing academic preparation, worry and anxiety about adapting to a new environment, and the depression that could arise from it all. In response, we had to collaborate to develop programs and resources and think quickly as new scenarios arose. We carefully surveyed each student’s situation and assessed their needs, just like any first responder would, to prevent problems from being exacerbated. This is an example of what school counselors can experience, even if their district offers additional mental health services. 

A 3-step approach to helping students  

Counselor and young adults sitting in a support circle. All clapping hands after one kid shares their story.


We believe that school systems should invest in their school counselors (and teachers and other school professionals) by providing additional mental health first aid training. School systems could also consider other measures to aid school counselors in further developing their overlooked role as mental health first responders.  

We propose that the path to resolving many of the mental health issues that today’s students face can be broken down into three components: 

  • Awareness
  • Commonality
  • Communication

Morgan Alford, who recently graduated from high school, helped us with this three-step idea during her senior year (with the approval of her parents). Her insights were based on her firsthand experience of problems as a high school student and the multiple testimonies she heard of how students struggle in high school settings. We therefore thought it appropriate to include these components and elaborate on what Morgan believes can aid school counselors in their sometimes-unwitting capacity as first responders to mental health issues. 


In Morgan’s experience, high school students do not generally understand common problems such as anxiety and depression. Absent additional context or complexity, these concepts can hold a wide array of meanings for high school students. We believe it would be helpful if mental health was included in the curriculum to teach students quick lessons, facilitate group conversations and provide a general mental health vocabulary check. 

Educating students about anxiety and depression concerns might decrease the amount of time school counselors and other professionals spend assessing emergencies. With this understanding, students might be able to describe what they are feeling much more clearly, as opposed to not knowing how to articulate what they are experiencing. This pre-planning would enable the school counselor to offer the student the best assistance and recommendations. This situational awareness also clarifies the challenges that school counselors confront every day and improves their understanding of how to react swiftly and effectively to circumstances.  


Teenagers are often unaware of how prevalent some of their internal conflicts are. From their perspective, maintaining the status quo might seem simpler than acknowledging the inner fears or struggles they think they are handling alone. The definitions and words acquired through the “awareness” component can be made more personal for teenagers by offering statistics — exactly how many of their friends are experiencing some type of mental or emotional struggle — and advancing the discussion about why these numbers are rising.  

Morgan told us that rather than merely acknowledging their own issues with mental health, individuals need to understand that improving student mental health as a whole is a goal to work toward.


Communication is the third, and arguably most important, component. Once teens are aware of what constitutes mental health, understand how common issues are and can recognize struggles within themselves, a safe environment has to be established for them to feel comfortable talking to an adult or counselor about something so personal. The people best equipped for these situations are school counselors, but according to Morgan, many high school students aren’t aware of the role of their school counselors or where they are located. It is important to announce and establish these connections with students while also making it crystal clear that confiding in these counselors about anything at any time is acceptable. 

Additionally, when counselors and authority figures develop one-on-one relationships with students, this better fosters an open and positive mental health culture in schools. For example, students could respond to questionnaires or Google Forms that counselors use to initiate small, but meaningful, conversations. Just one-minute, individual meetings between a student and a counselor can open a gateway to alleviating a teen’s inner turmoil. 

Even under ideal conditions, there are always outliers — students who are more private, more reserved or more volatile than others. The key to reaching all students is meeting them where they are comfortable rather than imposing on their boundaries. Students want to feel like individuals and young adults rather than patients waiting for treatment. Practicing empathy, understanding that baring one’s soul to another is terrifying and knowing how to comfortably move past that will yield results. Vulnerability is a gradual process, but toeing the line between peer and authority figure can go a long way.  

As this article demonstrates, school counselors can unwittingly serve as first responders in the field of mental health. There are steps that can be taken, or simply reinforced, to improve awareness, shared experiences and communication that will ostensibly aid in assessing mental health crises when they occur. 

Bringing the components to the school counselor 

Many school counselors perform the unrecognized task of being a first responder to mental health crises. According to research, the demands placed on first responders — including their repeated exposure to crisis situations — can cause stress that exacerbates depression and anxiety. Given that school counselors must deal with resolving daily crises that may increase their stress levels, especially in more challenging school environments, we may speculate that this is an underlying factor in school counselor burnout. This is similar to what is observed with first responders such as firefighters, police and others.  

School counselors may frequently work in isolation, depending on the size of the school. As a result, crises may interfere with their regular schedules or duties, adding a great deal of unnoticed stress to their lives. We believe school counselors could use components such as awareness, commonality and communication to ease some of their stressors. These efforts could be carried out through their local school districts or among their own colleagues.  

Awareness involves raising school counselors’ recognition of what they might be experiencing if they are not taking breaks or if they are taking work home to catch up. This can help school counselors become more mindful that work is extending beyond the workday and into their personal time.  

Because some school counselors work alone, districts should put in place budgets that fund attendance at state or national conferences so that individuals can share experiences (commonality) and gain additional resources as their positions as school counselors are becoming more complex and demanding.  

Finally, as it relates to communication, districts should host monthly or bimonthly meetings for school counselors to discuss pressing issues that they may be facing within themselves or as a result of workload responsibilities and what those workload responsibilities look like for each individual.  

First responders routinely meet situations head-on and provide the appropriate services or resources thereafter. In the case of school counselors and teachers, this service isn’t always recognized or applauded. Once we properly understand the load that comes with repeatedly handling crises, more resources should be provided to help alleviate the emotional heaviness that occurs for these professionals day to day. The recognition of a job well done should be more commonplace in the lives of first responders — including school counselors. 


Jetaun Bailey holds a doctorate in professional counseling and supervision. Jetaun is a college professor, a professional licensed counselor, an evaluator and a certified school counselor. Contact Jetaun at jetaunbailey@gmail.com. 

Cheryl Allen is an educational specialist in school counseling, holds instructional leadership certification and is a certified school counselor. Cheryl is an assistant principal at Montevallo High School. Contact Cheryl at Allen1908@yahoo.com. 

Morgan Alford is a recent graduate of Mount Juliet High School. Her professional aspirations are to be a writer and media producer. Morgan will enroll at Tennessee State University this coming fall, where she received a scholarship for her academic achievement. Contact Morgan at mealford05@yahoo.com.  

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Increasing mental health access through school and community partnerships

By Jessica Holt August 5, 2022

In 2014, I shifted from working as a professional counselor in a mental health agency to working as a school counselor in the metro Atlanta area. I had experience working with adults and children who had emotional, behavioral and substance abuse disorders, so I thought that transitioning to the school system would provide a much-needed break and keep me from burning out.

I told myself, “This is going to be so much better because I’m going to have a regular schedule and lots of breaks. No more managing crises, being on call, treatment planning or dealing with severe problems.” But I was wrong. Although my role and job title changed, I was still seeing a lot of the same issues, especially self-harm, anxiety and depression.

In addition, working with middle school students requires a lot of energy, flexibility, patience and compassion. You are helping young people at a pivotal time in their personal, social and academic development. They are beginning to learn what is most important to them and create their identity. Combine that with peer pressure, hormones and more rigorous classes and your job as a school counselor seems never-ending.

The current challenges in schools

School counselors, much like teachers, were already suffering from high levels of burnout, fatigue and stress before the COVID-19 pandemic. And the last three years have only made the situation worse. At my school, more students are struggling with depression and anxiety and have less resiliency or grit. Many of our students’ families are also dealing with unemployment, homelessness and financial issues.

All these factors have the potential to affect students’ behavior, mental health and interactions with others. I have noticed an increase in the number of students who engage in self-harm as well as students presenting with suicidal ideations. My school district has a specific protocol for school counselors to follow if a student presents with suicidal ideation. This includes using the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale, communicating with parents and guardians, referring to crisis services and creating safety plans when students return to school. But this protocol only addresses part of the problem: the suicidal ideation and the need for a safety plan. It doesn’t address the presenting problems of depression or anxiety, nor does it help students develop coping skills to prevent future crises.

Kenny Eliason/Unsplash.com

My school also administers a survey to students in the fall and spring each year to assess school climate, student resiliency, social-emotional learning and other topics. The survey results from the previous school year help guide social-emotional learning curriculum the following year. The survey data from 2020-2021 revealed that many students at my school lacked coping skills and grit, so the school system has taken several steps to help students with these issues, including weekly social-emotional learning lessons, wellness campaigns and an anonymous reporting system that allows parents and students to report students who are at risk (e.g., engaging in self-harm, experiencing child abuse, being bullied). 

The Georgia Apex program

My school district was chosen to participate in the Georgia Apex Program during the 2021-2022 school year. This state-wide program, which is funded by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, promotes collaboration between community mental health providers and schools to make mental health services accessible to students and their families.

The program’s goals include early detection of adolescent behavioral health needs, increased access to mental health services for children and youth, and coordination between mental health providers and local school districts. This is a wraparound (comprehensive) program that includes behavioral health assessments, psychiatric/nursing services, individual and family therapy (school-based and community), and community support services (e.g., case management).

My school district partnered with two local mental health agencies so that three schools, including mine, could have a school-based professional counselor onsite to help students who present with a variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Kasey Ross, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is employed by a mental health agency in north Georgia, is one of the two school-based therapists my school district hired. She works two days at the middle school, two days at the high school and one day at her mental health agency (with the option to come to the school that day if needed).

“When we can detect behavioral health needs early, we can help reduce admission to higher levels of care, reduce unexcused absences and reduce disciplinary actions as well,” Ross says. “Additionally, the program is available at schools, homes and other community places, which makes it flexible and convenient for many families.”

The Apex referral process

School counselors often have large caseloads and limited time to work with each student. This can make it difficult to help students with more severe issues. In addition, school counselors are seeing an increase in students who need mental health services.

This is where the Apex program comes in. The school counselor can gather more information about the student’s personal needs and can give the student and their parents/guardians information about the Apex program. With the parent’s/guardian’s permission, the school counselor can then refer a student to the Apex therapist who has partnered with the school. The referral includes student demographics, presenting problem(s), insurance information (if they have any) and contact information for the parent/guardian.

The program is primarily for students who have PeachCare (Georgia’s version of Medicaid); however, students who do not have insurance are also able to receive services for up to 60 days, and the Apex therapist helps to connect them with local resources to obtain insurance. The school counselor can also refer students who have private insurance, and the Apex therapist can also help connect them with providers who accept their insurance.

Having a school-based therapist in our building, who is accessible four days out of the week, has been a game changer. This program allows school counselors such as myself to help students who might not otherwise receive the care they need because of our high caseloads. Even if we were allowed to provide therapy to students, we simply don’t have the time because our work is solution-focused and brief. Now, after meeting with a student who is in crisis, I can refer them to the school-based therapist, which is often a huge relief for the student’s parents.

And the process is quick and easy. I can give the student the information packet for Apex and do the online referral while they are in my office. The school-based therapist typically reaches out within 24 hours to set up an intake appointment, where they will do a behavioral health assessment and then develop a treatment plan. The therapist discusses with the student and parent/guardian when they will provide therapy and how often, and because the therapist is connected to the school, they can access the student’s school schedule and arrange counseling sessions so they do not affect students’ academic performance. For example, I have several students who meet with our Apex therapist during their electives. In addition, the Apex therapist can also meet with students and families in the community, including at the library, at the therapist’s clinic or in the students’ homes.

The benefits of the program

The Apex program appealed to several parents of my middle school students because it made counseling accessible, convenient and affordable. The community-based mental health provider, Ross, was able to help these students in some way.

One student, for example, reported feelings of depression and anxiety because her parents were going through a divorce and her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As her school counselor, I was able to meet with her and gather more information about how this had been affecting her at school and home. After meeting with the student, I called her parents to tell them about the Apex program and how it could benefit their daughter. They agreed and asked me to send the information home with her and to also go ahead and do the online referral.

The next day, Ross contacted the parents and scheduled a first session with the parents and the student for later in the week. I continued to check in with this student throughout the year, and she said that the counseling sessions had helped her to feel less depressed and anxious.

There are many advantages to the Apex program. According to Ross, “the benefits of school-based mental health services include increased access to mental health services, improved attendance and academic performance, increased engagement at school and a reduction in mental health stigma. In addition, there are typically fewer classroom disruptions, less disciplinary referrals, less course failures and a decrease in inpatient hospitalizations.”

Three schools in our district currently have an Apex therapist. Ross, the therapist working with my middle school and the connected high school, has a caseload of 32 students. Our district also plans to expand this to two elementary schools next year. Ross notes that her agency also provides Apex services to six other counties and has helped 294 students so far. “We are growing and will be able to help even more students and their families next year,” Ross says.

I hope that the funding for this program (and others like it) will continue because it has made a positive impact on the climate at my school and the lives of my students.



Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s August cover story (in which Holt is quoted), “Responding to the youth mental health crisis in schools.”


Jessica Holt is a licensed professional counselor and has been working as a counselor since 2010. She is starting her ninth year as a school counselor. She primarily works with middle and high school students to help them meet their academic, social and emotional needs.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Responding to the youth mental health crisis in schools

By Bethany Bray July 25, 2022

Late last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory to call attention to what he described as a “youth mental health crisis.” Depression, suicidality and other mental health challenges have been on the rise among American youth in the past decade, but Murthy believes the stressors and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already alarming situation.

In a June interview with ABC News, Murthy acknowledged that the crisis is ongoing, saying, “Ultimately, we will know when we’ve reached the finish line when they’re [American youth] doing well and they tell us they’re doing well and when data tells us that as well.”

Murthy’s advisory called attention to a concerning situation that school-based counselors continue to witness firsthand. American students are experiencing an increasing severity and prevalence of mental health challenges that range from self-harm and disordered eating to underdeveloped social and emotional regulation skills.

Students are trying to learn among a multitude of storms. America continues to struggle with the ongoing dual crises of racial injustice and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. And on top of that, divisive issues related to schools have been making news headlines lately, including laws created to target transgender youth, arguments about critical race theory and school curriculum, and despair and finger-pointing after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed the lives of 19 elementary school students and two teachers. 

It all adds up and is affecting the day-to-day lives of children and families. 

With a problem so large, it’s going to take more than school-based counselors to reverse the concerning trends in youth mental health. School counselors are on the front lines of this storm, but they also need buy-in, support and collaboration from school administration and staff, parents, community mental health professionals and the community at large.

Distress in students

Jennifer Akins, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and president of the Texas School Counselor Association, noted that schools across her state are seeing both increased prevalence and severity of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality and eating disorders among students. This has prompted statewide agencies to collect and track data on student mental health, including self-harm, to inform interventions and programs to be deployed in the public schools, Akins says.

“These are not new issues for us, but the thing is the numbers are so much greater,” says Akins, the senior director of guidance and counseling for the McKinney, Texas, public schools. “A huge area of need right now is emotional regulation. They [students] are just not as skilled right now at managing strong feelings. … Students who are experiencing thoughts about self-harm are more often advancing those thoughts into action. They now have thoughts, plus a plan, plus action.”

Texas school counselors are also reporting an increase in self-harm in young students at the elementary level, Akins adds.

Akins is far from alone in what she is seeing. The school-based counselors interviewed for this article report similar rises in self-harm, depression and other mental health challenges among their student populations. Many of these issues were present before the pandemic, but the isolation and lack of social interaction the students experienced while learning remotely during the first years of the pandemic weakened students’ social skills and their ability to regulate their emotions and cope with distress. According to several of the school counselors interviewed for this article, students’ social media use is also a factor that often makes these issues worse.

Jessica Henry has been a high school counselor for 15 years in the Akron, Ohio, area, and she says she’s never seen so many students struggling with suicidal ideation, self-harm, depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Students are experiencing a lack of resilience and continue to struggle to adjust to in-person school, and for some, this includes developing unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm, Henry says. Small problems that could otherwise be overcome often spiral into “the end of the world” for students, adds Henry, a licensed school counselor in a seventh through 12th grade school in Ashland, Ohio.

For some students, home can be a tumultuous atmosphere and a source of stress, so school functions as a safe place, which they lost when schools switched to at-home learning during the pandemic, notes Henry, a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor.

Jessica Holt, an LPC and counselor at a middle school in metro Atlanta, has noticed that in addition to self-harm, depression and anxiety, interpersonal problems, such as bullying and conflict with peers, have become more prevalent recently. Her school has seen an increase in the number of students requesting one-on-one counseling on their own, as well as referrals from teachers and school staff for students who need someone to talk to. There has also been an increase of students who are struggling with sexuality or gender identity issues or who feel like they don’t fit in, she says.

Even though most schools have returned to in-person instruction, the effects of being out of the school environment continue to affect students’ mental health, particularly their self-esteem, social skills and anxiety, says Holt, a member of the American Counseling Association. They are still out of practice with navigating classroom dynamics and making friends.

In Holt’s experience, many parents overcompensated and became more involved in their children’s lessons while they were at home for virtual learning. Parents would log in during virtual learning and check their child’s grades, monitor their work and send messages to teachers. As a result, Holt has noticed that students are struggling with autonomy and self-esteem now that they have returned to in-person classes. Parents are more likely to be the one to message the school when a student is failing, she notes, rather than the student being proactive and asking to make up missed assignments or for extra help.

“Kids don’t have problem-solving skills because things have been done for them. They don’t know how to cope when they are in distress,” Holt says. “One thing that has come out of the pandemic is [problems with] accountability. Students are not taking responsibility because their parents have taken everything on. … That self-advocacy piece is not there for a lot of students.”

Early intervention

Derek Francis, manager of counseling services for the Minneapolis Public Schools, says that his district will be doubling the number of elementary school counselors this fall. Counseling staff at the elementary, middle and high school levels in Minneapolis have also been leading more small groups for students to focus on social-emotional learning, managing stress, anxiety and other mental health challenges.

Minneapolis students are struggling not only with self-esteem, peer conflict, anxiety and other mental health issues but also with discrimination and bias based on racial, sexual and other identities, including negative interactions on social media, says Francis, who co-authored a chapter on proactively addressing racial incidents in schools in the ACA-published book Antiracist Counseling in Schools and Communities. In response, Francis’ school district has enhanced counseling services (including small groups) and weaved mental health discussions with a cross-cultural focus into classroom lessons across grade levels. It’s powerful when students hear that their peers are feeling some of the same anxiety and distress they are experiencing and are able to talk about it openly, says Francis, who works in the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Department of College and Career Readiness.

The Minneapolis schools are also taking an early intervention approach to mental health. Recent years have shown that elementary students can benefit from learning coping skills that help them regulate and calm themselves and deal with strong emotions, Francis says. So the district has been teaching young students how to identify when they’re becoming overwhelmed, name their feelings and use skills to calm themselves, such as breathing techniques, as well as letting them know whom they should contact within the school for additional help.

Self-regulation in a young student can mean the difference between moving on from a negative interaction with a peer on the playground or remaining upset the entire day, says Francis, an ACA member. Teaching young students these skills during elementary school may keep them from carrying over or forming difficult or unhealthy behaviors, such as skipping class, into middle or high school.

“The younger we can help kids know how to regulate their emotions and talk about their feelings, the better,” he stresses.

As manager of all the school counselors in the Minneapolis Public Schools, Francis often goes into classrooms to speak with students. During a recent session on “the power of words” with third, fourth and fifth graders, he sparked discussion by asking students for examples of incidents when they’d heard an “ouch” (hurtful) word and ways to respond when they are the recipient of or witness to an ouch word. The students had plenty of experiences with ouch words, including one kid who had been ridiculed for his lisp.

Francis then focused the conversation on social skills, empathy and ways to connect with people who come from different backgrounds. His overarching message to the students was that school should be an inclusive place, says Francis, a professional development specialist with Hatching Results, a company that provides training and continuing education for school counselors, administrators and school districts.

Francis says his district intentionally approaches hate and bias incidents in the same way they treat fire drills: It’s something for staff, students and parents to prepare for. That way, when something does happen, everyone knows how to talk about it, respond and connect with resources. 

The Minneapolis schools have also focused on the negative implications that social media use can have on student mental health. It’s become clear that students are saying hurtful things to each other online, not only on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat but also via the chat feature on video games, group text messages and other avenues, Francis notes.

Adults don’t often realize how much of students’ lives are spent in the digital world, he says, and parents and students alike are not often aware of the connection between social media use and how a person feels about themselves. Many students do not have a parent or adult who monitors their dialogue on social media or helps them know when to log off or disregard negative comments, he adds.

“[Students’] brains are not developed yet to know how their words impact other people. It’s an area that needs a lot more development after the pandemic,” Francis continues. “The [effects of the] isolation of the pandemic, when paired with the negativity of social media, can really distract them from seeing positive things about themselves. We have to be mindful of the impact of screen time on students’ mental health. … It really impacts the school environment when it’s unaddressed.”

Forging connection

Holt and the other school counselors at her Atlanta-area middle school coordinate their schedules so they can visit and speak to the classrooms each fall. These visits serve as an opportunity to survey students on their mental health needs, and they also allow students to meet the counselors and learn more about the schools’ counseling programming.

The survey data they collect during these classroom visits informs the counselors’ focus for the year (e.g., the need for small groups to help students with anger, parental separation, grief or other issues) and also helps them identify and connect with individual students who are at risk, Holt explains.

Tracking student concerns and tailoring an appropriate counseling response are even more vital as mental health difficulties are on the rise.

Three students at Holt’s middle school have taken their own lives in the past five years. Part of the district’s response to the suicides, as well as to the overall increase of mental health needs, has been to establish a program that installs school-based therapists to provide long-term therapy for students. This year, Holt’s district has increased the number of school-based therapists to meet  the demand.

Holt’s school has also adopted several peer-based programs, including one that pairs established students with peers who are new to the district and another that trains students in suicide prevention and how to respond and connect a peer to appropriate help when they notice suicidal ideation (e.g., observing evidence of cutting in a peer as they change clothes for physical education classes).

The peer programming, counselor classroom visits and other recent initiatives are aimed at preventing students from falling through the cracks and help the counselors keep their finger on the pulse of the school, Holt explains. And it’s had a positive impact on school culture.

Like Holt, Henry feels that counseling staff need to be more visible and involved in their schools to respond to the recent rise in mental health needs. Now more than ever, school counselors need to get creative and set an example for other school staff by taking the first steps to forge connection with students, Henry says.

Long hours and heavy workloads leave teachers and counselors prone to burnout, but students also suffer when teachers and school staff focus on just getting through the school day and lose sight of the emotions and issues that students are dealing with beyond academics, stresses Henry, who is co-author of the 2019 book Mental Health in Our Schools: An Applied Collaborative Approach to Working With Students and Families. School staff who don’t take the time to connect with students, she says, risk not being able to recognize when a student is having an “off” day or exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior that indicates they need extra support.

School counselors can take steps to prevent this by encouraging teachers to spend time bonding with students at the start of the year, rather than diving into rigid topics such as classroom rules and expectations, Henry says. She notes that icebreaker activities, such playing bingo or prompting discussions about students’ favorite television shows or rides at a local amusement park, can make a big difference in fostering connection.

“And with that [activity] comes so much more dialogue,” she adds.

Henry also encourages counselors to be proactive and make their services known during team meetings and trainings among school staff. By emphasizing that their “door is always open” for collaboration when a student is struggling behaviorally or academically, counselors can help remind teachers that they are an important resource that can help address the underlying reasons for disruptive behavior or failing grades, such as anxiety, self-esteem issues or food insecurity at home. 

Henry says that improving student mental health and school culture is about school counselors “being present, being around [the] teachers and being around students as much as possible,” including in the hallways and at lunch. “And invite teachers to collaborate with you when a student seems ‘off,’” she adds. “When an adult reaches out, little things like that can change a kid’s life and make them feel like someone does care.”

Henry often offers to serve as a mediator between a teacher and a student when behavioral issues or conflict arises in the classroom. “I sometimes meet with a teacher behind the scenes to say, ‘Have you tried this?’ or ‘When I worked with this student, here’s what worked, here’s what he responded to,’” she explains. “It’s just like a [counseling] treatment plan; if something is not working, we move on and try something else.”

It’s easy for school staff to focus on what a student is doing wrong, she notes, but it’s more helpful to focus on what they’re doing right and emphasize their strengths. Offering students creative options beyond discipline and exploring the reasons why they’re struggling is key.

“We need to meet kids where they are,” says Henry, who counsels individual clients part-time at a private practice in addition to working as a school counselor. “Some of these kids just want to be heard. Just listening to what they have to say and not judging them makes a big difference. They need to feel like people [school staff] care.”

Barriers to behavioral health care 

School counselors are often the first mental health professional a student who is struggling with mental illness comes in contact with, notes Stephen Sharp, a school counselor at a middle school and coordinator for K-12 school counseling services in the Hempfield School District in the suburbs of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

However, many students need long-term outpatient therapy that would not be appropriate or feasible for school counselors to offer. When students and families face barriers to access behavioral health care, it only adds to the increasing student mental health needs that schools are facing, notes Sharp, a member of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) board of directors. 

The issue that Sharp says he finds most challenging is that for many of his students, all of their mental health support “begins and ends at the school walls.”

Sharp says he’s seen students go months without needed treatment because they were put on a waiting list for an appointment with a local mental health provider or they lack insurance or the ability to pay for treatment not covered by insurance. In some cases, undertreatment or lack of preventive treatment has led to student hospitalizations, he adds.

The biggest need for my students is access to ongoing behavioral health services,” he says. “The reality is that it [the gap in services] creates a disproportionate burden on the schools. Not just on school counselors but teaching staff as well.”

Sharp’s school district has a strong partnership with a local behavioral health provider who provides school-based services for students. However, he says that many students are not able to take advantage of the service. Both lack of insurance and limited coverage are barriers to treatment for students, he notes, but the latter is more pervasive. Students may have health insurance, but their plan may not cover certain services such as school-based therapy or virtual therapy, he explains.

There is also a shortage of behavioral health care providers just at a time when there is an increased demand for services. Sharp says that his school struggled this year to find a qualified school-based therapist to hire in addition to school counseling staff.

Sharp’s district is not alone in this phenomenon. Francis says that community mental health agencies in Minneapolis are also full and have waiting lists. In Texas, community resources that would otherwise provide support for families outside of schools, such as social service organizations, civic centers and nonprofit programs, are declining — and in some areas are nonexistent, Akins notes.

The pandemic revealed the cracks and flaws not only of our education system but also the health care and mental health care systems, Sharp notes.

“We are in a behavioral health care crisis, not just in the state of Pennsylvania but nationally as well, and it leads to a lack of access to care. Certain areas (e.g., rural) have always had a lack of care, but it’s gotten so much worse,” Sharp says. “All of this is really disheartening and challenging, but it’s also something that we absolutely as a profession and a society need to be talking about. What level of advocacy and coordination are we going to do to address these concerns?”

Sharp says the past year has been the hardest year yet for him professionally. But at the same time, he sees opportunity ahead.

One of the lessons gleaned from Hurricane Katrina, Sharp notes, is that a coordinated response works best in times of crisis, especially when there are financial strains and staffing limitations. There is an opportunity for national-level organizations such as ACA and ASCA to offer guidelines, training and other programming to address the rise inyouth mental health concerns, he says. And there is also opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration. For example, the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association (PSCA) is working with the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to address the barriers to care in their state, he notes.

Support from professional organizations as well as collaboration among and across helping professionals at the local, state and national levels “makes things better but also makes us [individual counselors] feel like we’re not the only ones pushing against a brick wall,” says Sharp, a past president of PSCA. “The more innovative that we can get and share stories of success, those are the types of things that will lead to something better after this.”

All hands on deck

As a school counselor, Holt says that she sometimes thinks of her role as a “connector” between students and families and wraparound resources that can help meet their needs outside of school, including mental health services. However, she advises school counselors to only share resources that they are familiar with and have vetted to ensure that they offer quality services.

It’s helpful, Holt says, when a professional counselor contacts her school to let them know they offer group or individual services that are well-matched to their student population. She also recommends counselors have a list of local providers that they can offer to teachers and school staff who, like counselors, sometimes find themselves overwhelmed and in need professional support.

Holt encourages community counselors to connect with their local school counselors, and vice versa. “Having that connection from community mental health to the schools is very important,” Holt says. “The more resources that we [school counselors] know about, the more referrals we can do for our parents and students. If we don’t have connections in the community, it makes it harder. Being able to know that we have partners in the community and knowing what’s available is helpful.”

Akins agrees that partnerships between school and community resources will be key in addressing the recent increase in youth mental health needs. However, community counselors need to recognize that establishing helpful collaboration takes time and patience.

There are a lot of practical components that have to fall into place before a school can adopt a new program or resource, Akins notes. “Instructional minutes are very precious,” she says, so school officials cannot always justify using class time for mental health programming.

Akins suggests that community counselors get to know the unique needs of their local school district, as well as what has and hasn’t worked for other schools, before contacting their school to offer help.

In times of crisis, “sometimes people who are coming from the [nonschool] mental health community think ‘we don’t have time to waste.’ That’s true, but processes are in place for a reason (i.e., student safety),” Akins says. “Taking the time to really connect with your district and plan and develop a formal partnership will be a lot more successful than emailing a principal to ask, ‘Can I come in and do XYZ?’”

Sandi Logan-McKibben, a clinical assistant professor and school counseling program director at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, asserts that counselors have an ethical responsibility to know what mental health and other wraparound resources are available in their area for clients and students.

She believes in this idea so strongly that she assigns her school counseling students a community mapping project each year. The students are charged with finding resources within the school district where they are working as a counseling intern and then overlaying those resources on a Google Maps image of the area. Students’ maps include not only mental health services but also after-school, tutoring and mentorship programs; organizations that help with food insecurity, homelessness or immigration services; nonprofit or faith-based organizations; and other institutions. 

This mapping project can be helpful for community and school-based counselors, whether they are students or not, adds Logan-McKibben, an ACA member.

She also recommends counselors find and help fill gaps in needed services. This can include anything from advocating for funding at a school board meeting or partnering with an existing nonprofit to expand services to contracting with a local university to offer pro bono counseling services for school students.

“It only takes one person to enact something and prompt change,” says Logan-McKibben, a former school counselor who lives in Florida and teaches virtually at Sacred Heart. “Find out what the actual needs of your community are. Don’t make assumptions. You don’t know unless you reach out.”

Counselors in all settings have a common skill — resourcefulness — and they need to draw on that skill to meet students’ needs in this time of crisis, Logan-McKibben says. This calls for counselors to work with a preventive, proactive and collaborative focus.

“The most important thing for all professional counselors to know is that we’re all in this together. Any kind of school crisis is really a community crisis,” she says.

Sharp agrees that counselors have a role to play in advocating for support for mental health care “both in and beyond the walls of the school.” This is a time to be concerned, he admits, but it’s also a time for meaningful work to be done.

“We also need to acknowledge the work that is being done and was done before [the situation became a crisis]. That work mattered before, and it matters now,” Sharp says. “Whether it’s school counseling or clinical counseling work we’re doing, it’s a sensitive time for the profession, … but [it’s] also a time to be mindful and reflective of victories and lessons learned. Also, [counselors should] take the time to celebrate. Celebrate the work our clients and students have done and use that to make the profession better.”


The influence of social and political issues on youth mental health 

Adults have been making a lot of decisions lately that not only create news headlines but also affect youth mental health, including a law aimed at making it easier for teachers to carry firearms in Ohio schools and the controversial Florida law — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents — that banned classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity.

For school counselors, these issues are more than soundbites on news programs. They affect their students and families and add to the already complicated work school counselors are doing to combat a rise in suicidality and other mental health concerns in American youth.

Jessica Henry, a high school counselor in the Akron, Ohio, area, says she’s had coworkers who have refused to use a student’s preferred pronouns. “Not only is that unethical and has legal ramifications, it’s [also] very difficult to hear when a teacher says, ‘I’m not doing that,’” she says.

Henry, a licensed professional clinical counselor, feels that schools (and school counselors) should take a proactive role to address controversial issues rather than avoiding them. Students, parents and educators need to hear about topics such as racial injustice and LGBTQ+ inclusion, she says.

“We have to address the bigger picture of what is going on in our world. It’s about getting your administrators and superintendent to understand that inclusivity is vital — and in turn, will affect academics,” Henry explains. “It goes back to [asking], ‘Does every kid feel safe in their school?’ ‘Does every kid feel like themselves in their school?’ If even one student says ‘no,’ we’ve got work to do.”

Part of this work also involves the need for counselors to have the humility to recognize their biases, says Derek Francis, manager of counseling services for the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Department of College and Career Readiness. The majority of the counseling profession is white, yet the majority of many school populations are not, he notes.

“We need to be mindful of our biases. … It takes laying down your privilege and learning, open listening and connecting,” says Francis. “Ultimately, we’re trying to build trust when we’re doing counseling. We want all people to know that we have positive regard for them, and we need to come in [with] the right [unbiased] mindset to help the person in front of us.”

The growing polarization of political and social issues in America has also led to distrust of public institutions such as schools, says Jennifer Akins, a licensed professional counselor and president of the Texas School Counselor Association. She’s seen this mistrust spiral into parents equating terms such as “social-emotional learning” with critical race theory.

“We [school counselors] have been working on mental health issues and school safety for a long time, and many districts have integrated mental health and social-emotional learning [into the curriculum]. There is a segment of the public that has developed a mistrust even of those words, ‘social-emotional.’ They feel that things like mental health don’t really have a place in public education or are inappropriate. That stigma adds to some of the [mental health] needs we’re seeing in students. It’s disheartening,” says Akins, the senior director of guidance and counseling for the McKinney, Texas, public schools. “There’s very little disagreement that parents want to send their child somewhere where they’re cared about and where they’re safe. But the initiatives and programs that help enhance those things are the very things that they are scared into thinking are harmful and terrible.”

One way to reduce these patterns, Akins says, is for school counselors to make transparency and communication with parents about programming a priority, as well as involving parents in the creation of programs as much as possible.

She suggests that school counselors focus on messaging that emphasizes common ground: We all want children to feel connected, to belong and to feel safe, she notes, so open communication about what a school is doing for student mental health — and why you’re doing it — can be helpful. “It’s just a matter of peeling back some of the layers of misinformation,” Akins says.



Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.