How a counselor shortage is hurting students struggling with anxiety, depression

School counselor retention was already a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to mental health experts. They said it's only gotten worse in recent years.

By Nicole Cortes, Zioni Moore and Whitney Souffrant

This story was published to USA TODAY on April 21, 2022.

It's a typical school day at Miami Lakes Educational Center located in this northwestern suburb of Miami. Kids are rushing to and from classes, people are eating in the cafeteria and Gabriella Fuster, an 18-year old senior, enters the bathroom. She walks into a stall, closes the door behind her.

And she cries.

“I'll hide in there for a good 10, 15 minutes,” Gabriella said.

Now, as most students have returned to in-person learning following the quarantine restrictions issued during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking a few minutes to cry in the bathroom has become the norm at her school, Gabriella said. It’s so common that when students walk back into the classroom and tear tracks are still visible on their faces, teachers immediately understand what happened. 

“The teachers usually know that you weren't just messing around,” Gabriella said.

Gabriella Fuster. Photo by Melissa Noda

The bathroom has become a substitute for a counseling office partly because, like many schools around the country, Miami Lakes is struggling to afford, and hire, enough mental health counselors to help students. Counseling experts say that was a problem before the pandemic and was only made worse during the lockdown because students were isolated at home, their friends and family were getting sick and dying from COVID, and they had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. 

Students are now facing the added anxiety of returning to in-person classes, some entering a brand new environment with people they’ve only seen on their Zoom screens. 

“We've definitely seen students across the nation express more feelings of stress and more feelings of anxiety,” said Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services at Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools and the former chair of the American School Counselors Association. “Just feeling kind of out of control feelings of fear, of the unknown.”

Congress and state legislatures have tried to help by allocating millions of dollars to hire more mental health counselors, but schools have faced their own struggles. Some can’t find enough qualified counselors and others worry about hiring new staff with money that’s only designed to be short term.

For schools in under-resourced communities, finding enough counselors has always been a challenge. The American School Counselor Association recommends that schools have no more than 250 students per counselor. Only 4.2% of schools located in city centers meet that recommendation, while suburban schools are twice as likely (9.8%) to do so, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy. 

“When you don't already have resources to be able to support what was happening before the pandemic, and you don't pump anymore into the communities to support those after the pandemic, then those gaps are going to increase,” said Kent Butler, a professor in counselor education at the University of Central Florida who holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology. 

Struggle to find enough counselors

One of the biggest challenges facing schools is finding enough qualified counselors to hire.

Despite government funding, there’s a supply-versus-demand issue in the school counseling field that existed long before COVID-19 hit.

Careers in mental health counseling are expected to grow 23% in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there aren’t enough students in the pipeline to meet that increased demand, partly because of the extensive training and multiple degrees and certifications required to become a counselor and because many programs require students to perform a year of unpaid training, an insurmountable economic barrier for many.

That scarcity is so severe that Nikki Poindexter Ham, the president of the Maryland School Counselors Association, has doubled her recruitment efforts over the past year and a half. She has increased the number of visits she makes to high schools and colleges where she encourages students to become counselors.

She’s doing that at a time when more Americans have become more sensitive to mental health as a legitimate problem that requires professional help. About 87% of Americans say that mental illness is “nothing to be ashamed of,” according to a May 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association.

And yet, schools are still struggling to find enough counselors.

Jennifer Rothman is a senior manager at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest alliance of local mental health organizations, but even she has struggled to find a counselor for her daughter.

“It can be very difficult,” she said. “There are shortages all around for that.”

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the school district used $14.2 million to hire 20 mental health coordinators and 100 part-time mental health professionals to respond to the growing mental health needs of its students due to the pandemic. And it has plans to hire an additional counselor for each school in January.

But the district remains far below the ratio of one counselor for every 250 students recommended by the American School Counselors Association. At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Miami-Dade’s ratio was 454 to 1. 

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools strives to meet the mental health needs of students in a timely fashion,” the district said in a statement. “School counselors are onsite daily, while school psychologists, school social workers, and mental health coordinators spend one day a week at a given school.”

Counselors could be allowed to do more

In addition to the shortage of counselors, Butler says there’s another problem.

“School districts don't know how to use a school counselor,” said Butler, the counseling professor at UCF. “We don't utilize their God-given skills.”

School counselors generally fall into three categories. Some help students with their day-to-day academics, some help them with college applications and scholarships, and guidance counselors are dedicated to the well-being of students, including their mental health, family problems, or addictions. 

But Butler said they’re generally not allowed to cross over into different areas. So, for example, academic counselors are not allowed to discuss family or legal problems with their students, he said. He also said many schools use counselors for administrative work, such as class scheduling, which limits their time counseling students. That means students are left with fewer people to turn to for mental health counseling. 

To address these issues, Butler believes schools need to allow academic counselors to provide mental health counseling, so long as they’re qualified to do so. In addition to that, schools need to assign only counseling tasks to their counselors.

“If an academic counselor is competently trained...to provide mental health care, then they should be able to utilize their expertise to provide that service,” he said.

Districts finding creative solutions

To address the shortage of counselors, many districts around the country have been forced to get creative.

In Broward County, Fla., the school district started its own counselor training program. Using a $2 million federal grant, the school trained 20 social workers and mental health counselors to work in Broward schools over the past year.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., schools are placing a higher emphasis on the use of S.E.L., or social-emotional learning, a program that teaches students and teachers the basics of mental health and how to identify problems that need to be referred to a counselor.

“Every adult in the building has a part of supporting S.E.L, whether you're doing it formally through your instruction, or integrating it through your instructional strategies, or whether you are modeling it as a bus driver or as a custodian or as a cafeteria worker,” said Parker, the Gwinnett County administrator.

Several school districts around the country are considering allowing students to take a “mental health day” as an excused absence. That is already in place in Oregon, Illinois and parts of Maryland, and more schools have become interested following the pandemic.

In Maryland, several school districts have been encouraging students to counsel other students. Poindexter Ham, the president of the Maryland School Counselors Association, said those peer counseling programs help offset the lack of professional counselors and provide students with someone they can relate to.

“It’s identifying...teens to really be that connection and that support for other teens and really reaching out and helping,” Poindexter Ham said.

All these efforts may one day improve the lack of access to adequate mental health services plaguing the nation’s schools, but students say they’re not yet seeing results.

Gabriella, the Miami Lakes senior, said she sees her classmates struggling constantly. She tries to help when she can, but she’s also aware that she’s not a trained therapist. So she’s hoping that students in her school, and others, one day get the help they truly need.

“A lot of kids at my school...suffer from intense anxiety,” she said. “And when I'm feeling like I want to cry in the bathroom...I would like to be able to go to the counselor's office and feel safe and secure and cry in there instead.”

Cortes, Moore and Souffrant are high school students at Luella High School in Locust Grove, Ga., North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Ga., and Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s reporting workshop on pandemic student mental health in Fall of 2021. YMG student Melissa Noda contributed to this story.