Q. The caseloads of school counselors are overwhelming. What can be done to provide early intervention to thousands of mentally ill children in our area?
When it comes to crisis care for children with mental health problems, the same word keeps cropping up: shortages.
Too few psychiatrists and too few beds can mean that kids who should be in treatment facilities remain in the classroom. And now years of budget cuts have limited the schools’ ability to respond.
At Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the number of counselors, psychologists and support staff has been drastically reduced, crippling the school district’s efforts to meet the behavioral needs of its 141,000 students.
“We have suffered tremendously from 2009 forward,” said Karen Thomas, director of CMS Support Services. “We are significantly understaffed.”
Prior to the 2009 budget cuts, every school in the district had at least one psychologist. Many of the bigger campuses had two or more.
Today, Thomas said, a single psychologist serves two or three schools. That means they spend the bulk of their days on testing and individual academic assessments, leaving little time to deal with what is often a full range of emotional problems.
The same time constraints extend to school counselors whose ranks were also cut. Once, their offices served as a refuge for students with problems at home or in an emotional crisis. No longer.
“The caseloads are overwhelming,” Thomas said, and counselors are hard-pressed to meet the broad-based academic needs for all students. “The notion of seeing one child for 60 minutes at a time, then another, is not the way.”
CMS requires each school to have a clearly indentified process to get a student counseling help. Parents, teachers, even the child, can initiate the steps. But even given the quality of her staff, Thomas said, the lack of numbers has undermined the schools’ ability to respond, even as the needs of the students have grown.
“They are working double- and triple-time to deliver the very best service,” she said. “But we’re getting tired. We need help.”