For many teachers and students, the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year was a surreal moment. All of a sudden you were in a classroom surrounded by 20 or so new kids like every other year, but now, you could only see the upper part of their faces. Their eyes.
Those facial expressions that you relied on your entire career in order to gauge understanding or interest were gone without a warning. But safety came first. The masks would help your students stay in school. And that's what mattered the most. But the masks were hiding something else. They were hiding the pain after a year of loneliness, solitude, and isolation.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. According to their statement, during the pandemic emergency rooms across the country saw a sharp increase in visits for all types of mental health concerns, including suicide. In the same statement, the AAP called for state, local and national agencies to work together to improve access to mental health care for young people. One of the proposed ways to do this is to "increase implementation and sustainable funding of effective models of school-based mental health care.”
School-based mental health care sounds like a logical approach. After all, a regular student spends an average of 1,215 hours per year in school. More than enough time for mental health professionals to provide the student with the help they need. That is if there's a mental health professional available in that school.
“The current ratio is like one school psychologist to almost 2000 students. So if you're serving five schools and you're only able to be in one school one day a week, you're not able to provide as robust, comprehensive services, and it becomes an equity issue,” explained Jackie Zins, president of the North Carolina School Psychology Association (NCSPA).
According to the NCSPA, the nationally recommended ratio is one school psychologist per 500 students. North Carolina would need about 1,700 more school psychologists in order to have one per school.
“At least in our state specifically, we only have five school psychology programs and they tend to be smaller, and so they're only graduating about 40 to 50 people a year,“ said Zins.
In order to become a school psychologist in North Carolina, one has to complete an approved program in school psychology at the sixth-year level and also obtained the required score (147) in the NTE/Praxis School Psychology Educational Testing Service (ETS). And according to Zins, the incentive to do all of this, is not quite there.
“So in 2020 there were 281 licensed school psychologists in the state who weren't working in the role of a school psychologist in the public schools. About 209 responded to a survey and of the two hundred and nine, 20% cited leaving the field because of low pay and then a little bit more than half indicated that a salary increase would encourage them to return to work,” Zins said.
On November 18th, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the 2021 Appropriation Act which would grant a salary increase for school psychologists and the creation of a position in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction dedicated to the recruitment and retention of school psychologists. Whether this will have the desired effect to ensure equitable access to mental health resources for all students across the state, we'll have to wait and see.