Counselors and psychologists struggle to meet mental health needs

Ratio exceeds recommended max by over 100 students per counselor

Helen Le and Claire Gilliland

Students are not the only ones suffering growing pains — with a student population of 2,174, school counselors and psychologists are taking on a larger workload that is often difficult to accomplish in a regular workday.

“We are contracted to work 7.5 hours a day,” counselor Ren Pham-Peck said. “So in that time, we’re doing… everything possible and still trying to meet all of our students’ needs, and so there is a gap in services.”

According to Article 21 “Ratio of Services,” counselors are only supposed to have 400 to 450 students each; if their student number exceeds that, Lodi Unified is supposed to hire more counselors to meet student and staff needs. Bear Creek counselors currently have approximately 543 students each as of Sept. 6, and the district has made no move to add more personnel.

“The district doesn’t feel like there’s need for more counselors,” Pham-Peck said.

School psychologists are also seeing an increase in students and workload without any relief.

“We’re serving more kids and we have more compliance and legal mandates that we have to do, so it’s kind of a simple math equation that if you don’t grow the people, then you get less work out of them, covering all of the mandates first,” school psychologist Jennifer Shirron said.

Counselors and school psychologists are having to reduce the time spent with each student as a result of the rising numbers of students.

“That’s why I came into this job: to be able to work with students and ensure that they have a good high school experience and graduate,” Pham-Peck said. “But it’s like we’re putting out fires, never doing anything preventative… We want to make sure that we don’t miss anything.”

“I just feel that there’s been a lack of support,” said parent Mary White, who asked that her name be changed for this story. “My child has actually sought out teachers because there hasn’t been as much support to counseling. I was told that my child was going to be seen by services through the school and it wasn’t happening for weeks and so he was seeking out his teacher instead, which is great, but she has her own job to do and [counseling] is not her job.”

“It’s really sad because I can remember doing a lot more counseling like 10 years ago,” Shirron said. “A school psychologist is skilled in more than just giving tests and writing reports, and that’s the unfortunate part — that becomes the job that we’re kind of just relegated to when there’s not enough of us, even though we can do so much more.”

Shirron used to work both with general and special ed kids, including counseling for general ed students. However, as a school psychologist, she has some job requirements she must meet concerning special ed students.

“What has happened in this district is that the population of special ed students has grown by about 26 percent in the last five years, but the number of school psychologists in the district has not grown,” Shirron said.

Due to the increase in special ed students and therefore an increase in the mandates she must meet, Shirron can no longer take any more general students for counseling this year because she cannot do that and also meet her mandatory requirements.

“[This year so far] I’ve had to turn away probably at least four general ed teachers who wanted to send a kid to me,” Shirron said. “It worries me about kids that are dealing with depression, because if you’re already feeling lonely and hopeless, and then you feel rejected on top of that, or like somebody doesn’t have time [for you] — that concerns me.”

“I have been trying to see the school psych, but they don’t provide one… and it’s been really hard for me because… if they provided one for me at the school, it would be so much easier for me to get help,” said junior Emily Brown, who asked that her name be changed for this story.

Pham-Peck is also worried about having to spend less time with students to handle her other responsibilities.

“When parents call us, when students come in to you, they think that’s the most important thing for them,” Pham-Peck said. “But when we push them aside because we’re too busy doing something else… then it festers and creates more problems.”

Students are told to go to their counselors for general counseling, whether it be about school or their personal lives.

“I know that my counselor personally has helped me as best as she could with what she had,” Brown said. “I know talking to your teachers, too, really helps with whatever situation you’re going through as long as you trust them.”

This recommendation increases counselors’ workload even more, as they are getting more and more students not only in the school, but a higher percentage of those students are either being sent to counselors or are coming in themselves.

“I wasn’t able to get a lot of help until a really long time after the whole situation, and it escalated,” said junior Joe White, whose name has been changed by request. “[My counselor] was very busy and he wasn’t able to get to me right away, but as soon as he was aware of the situation to what extent it was, he was more active as a counselor and more active with me.”

Counselor Ivan Tunnell says that he and other counselors may refer students to outside psychologists if they need more services that they cannot provide on-campus.

“If it’s a crisis with just one person, then I would speak with parents and refer them to private therapy,” Tunnell said. “I do offer some general counseling, where I can do check-ins on a weekly basis or periodically, but it’s not going to be like a traditional therapy session where we’re going deep into issues.”

Some students may have problems with affording private therapy; to help, certain therapists offer flexible prices dependent on parents’ income, which allows some leeway. Despite that, this route is still not an option for some, whether it be because of insurance, transportation or the fact that they can’t go to their parents about therapy. These obstacles make on-campus resources more important.

“Every time I called [any private psychologist] listed on my insurance, they weren’t taking patients, or there was a wait list, and it was taking a long time to try to get an appointment,” Mrs. White said. “School counselors could try to fill in that gap when there’s a situation like that when [a student] can’t be seen right away, too.”

This year, the Child Abuse Prevention Council was also added to the school as an additional resource for students; however, this council doesn’t necessarily help all students, and it is not an adequate replacement for hiring more counselors.

“[CAPC] was a grant that … is statewide to try to do intervention for kids but they don’t do school-based, they do groups of prevention of suicide,” Pham-Peck said. “If students are suicidal they come in twice a week and they assist students that we are concerned about…. And it’s free so that’s why the district says instead of hiring more counselors who can oversee the full services they’re only going to do groups with [CAPC].”

Pham-Peck still assures students that they can come in to talk to their counselors if they need to.

“When you’re in crisis, come in here, we’ll take all the time we need to work with you,” Pham-Peck said. “If we can’t help you or if we think you need more we will refer you so that you can get the help you need. We will never turn away students.”