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A year into leading the March for Our Lives rallies in Arizona, where calls for stronger gun control fell mostly on deaf ears, Induja Kumar, 17, and her fellow student organizers decided to try something different.

They started demanding more school counselors.

Their initial pitch last year to lower Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio – currently the highest in the nation at 905-to-1 – centered on stabilizing the mental health of young people as a way to prevent gun violence. But with schools closed until at least fall, and students statewide dealing with the emotional toll of a global pandemic, Kumar said she believes the successful fight for more counselors couldn’t have come at a better time.

“My generation has dealt with so many crises,” said Kumar, who was born just a couple years after 9/11. “Since then the world has only gotten more apocalyptic. A lot of us became desensitized to really horrible things,” like climate change and school shootings, Kumar added. “Now we’re coming of age during a pandemic.”

Kumar said school counselors were key allies for her and her friends – mentors and confidantes who can help students navigate thoughts, feelings and dilemmas that they may not understand.

“A lot of us became desensitized to really horrible things. Now we’re coming of age during a pandemic.”

Induja Kumar, senior, BASIS Chandler charter school

But now, as educators everywhere try to figure out how to do their jobs remotely, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the instability of relying on one counselor, or just a few, to guide hundreds of students through new academic hurdles, prepare them for an uncertain future and triage their mental health crises. Besides being away from counselors, kids are also out of sight of their teachers and peers, two groups that often help counselors identify who might need their help. Even as the ratio of students to counselors declines nationally, many states remain well above the 250-to-1 recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). And counselors around the country have scrambled to find answers to questions about how to ethically and logistically approach the new virtual reality of their work.

In late March, as states rushed to close schools, the ASCA tried to host a pair of webinars to answer those questions. But after 13,000 members registered for the sessions – and quickly crashed the servers – the ASCA stopped offering live webinars, said Jill Cook, a former school counselor who is assistant director with the organization.

“Folks all over the country, not just in rural states, they’re just searching for help and support,” Cook said. “School districts have a lot on their plates so [counselors] haven’t really gotten directives about what their role should look like.”

The extreme scarcity of counselors in Arizona, especially in elementary schools, puts students there at particular risk. One indicator that kids are in trouble already is that the Arizona Department of Child Safety has seen the number of calls to its child abuse hotline fall by a quarter since mid-March – a reminder that students in vulnerable situations at home are isolated from the adults on campus, most often counselors, who keep careful watch for signs of abuse and neglect.

Arizona has the highest student-to-counselor ratio in the nation at 905-to-1.

Just before this crisis began, Arizona was poised to spend millions more on boosting its thin roster of counselors, thanks in part to the advocacy of students like Kumar. But as the coronavirus freezes Arizona’s economy, securing that money seems much less certain. Without it, what little mental health support schools can offer students may fray further in the coming months.

“For students who were already suffering, and maybe only had one counselor at school, that was their one outlet to go to,” said Kumar, a senior at the BASIS Chandler charter school. “Something that was already bad before the pandemic is only getting worse now.”

It’s a familiar scenario for youth struggling with mental health issues across the U.S. National data suggest there’s a rising need for mental health supports for adolescents.

Teen suicide is on the rise nationally and in Arizona in particular, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 17 percent of high schoolers nationwide had “seriously considered” attempting suicide and 14 percent reported they had made a suicide plan in the past year, according to the results of the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the CDC. Nearly a third of high school students surveyed reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to the CDC. The pandemic, and efforts to contain it, likely will exacerbate all this, according to new research: In a survey of more than 2,300 students in Wuhan, China — where the novel coronavirus emerged and where students on average had been restricted to home for a little more than a month — 23 percent of students reported depressive symptoms. About 19 percent reported anxiety.

Related: ‘A drastic experiment in progress’: How will coronavirus change our kids?

Megan Bledsoe, a counselor at Discovery Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, records a video for students about how to stay physically active from her home in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Photo courtesy Megan Bledsoe

While parents often turn to private counseling and professional therapists for help, many do not have the means to provide that one-on-one support for their children. Also, some families have a cultural distrust of therapy or lack the time to take advantage of it.

Especially in states like Arizona, where families have little access to mental health care, students often turn to school counseling to triage their personal crises.

Janine Menard works as a counselor at Sheely Farms Elementary, which enrolls about 750 students from pre-K through eighth grade in the Phoenix suburb of Tolleson. While Menard tries to teach all students how to manage their emotions and helps some in small groups, she often refers kids with more difficult issues to free therapy provided on campus by a local mental health agency. Still, some parents don’t let their kids participate in the therapy or forget to take advantage of it.

And when students don’t get treatment outside of school, “all of that falls back onto the school counselor,” Menard said. “So maybe you have a kid diagnosed — or undiagnosed — with depression or anxiety, and it goes untreated. Then that’s something I have to do my best with.”

A century ago, counselors didn’t spend much of their time on the mental health of students, or what’s known in schools as social-emotional learning. That became a part of their job during the mid-1900s, as school counseling shifted from a focus on vocational guidance to also providing personal and social services, according to a 2004 paper published in the journal Professional School Counseling. But it wasn’t until the ASCA adopted a national model in 2003 that mental health gained an official role in school counseling duties. Since then, there’s been a lot of debate on how much time to devote to mental health versus academic achievement versus college and career planning, but every counselor interviewed for this story said social-emotional responsibilities have been taking up more and more of their time at work for the past 10 to 20 years.

1 in 3 – number of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Over that same time, as Arizona slashed its funding for public schools, the ratio of students to counselors rose from about 736-to-1 in 2000 to 905-to-1 last year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Those numbers caught the attention of Kumar and her peers with March for Our Lives Arizona. Initially, following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the students led a 15,000-person rally for stricter gun laws. They held a “die-in” at the office of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and lobbied their local school boards to join the cause. But in a state where counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” Arizona lawmakers passed no gun-safety laws that year.

“So we switched to mental health,” Kumar said. “The motivation behind a lot of mass shootings … it’s really a student who’s struggling to find community or a sense of stability. We also have to understand it’s everyday gun violence. It’s also suicide.

A year later, in 2019, lawmakers added $20 million to a school safety program that until then had paid only for armed officers on campus. The state board of education later approved about half that money for schools to hire nearly 150 new counselors by August 2020. Those grants would have lowered Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio to 810-to-1. But districts had filled just 29 of those positions as of early April, by which time the governor had shuttered brick-and-mortar schools for the rest of the year.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ducey had pitched an additional $38 million for the school safety program, which would have paid for 189 more counselors. His proposal, however, came before lawmakers adjourned their session early and the state projected a $1 billion budget shortfall due to the coronavirus.

“We’re all champing at the bit. What will happen with that?” said Brenda Vargas, director of counseling and social services for the Chandler Unified School District in a suburb of Phoenix, referring to the $38 million.

She acknowledged the state will have other pressing priorities once the budget woes become a reality. “However,” Vargas added, “when it comes to minimizing the impact of what could be a very traumatic experience for students, [their mental health] just has to be a top concern.”

Related: Schools struggle to help students return to class after a mental health crisis

Even before the closures, Shiloh Wheeler faced an impossible job: For 10 years, she was the only school counselor for all 1,750 students in the Thatcher Unified School District near the state’s eastern border with New Mexico.

school counseling
Shiloh Wheeler, a counselor with the Thatcher Unified School District in rural Arizona, works outside her home on April 27. Until this school year, Wheeler was the only counselor for all 1,750 students in her district. Credit: Photo courtesy Shiloh Wheeler

The district operates four schools in a rural town of about 5,000 people. Wheeler, chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association, said her primary focus was the high school. “But then I would [handle] crises on call for the other schools,” she said. “My job was mostly reactive.”

“There are definitely counselors losing sleep over if their kids are OK.”

Amanda Nolasco, school counselor specialist, Arizona Department of Education.

In recent years, Wheeler has encountered more students struggling with anxiety and depression or self-harming behaviors. Now that she can’t see her students in person, she sends surveys to every high schooler by email, asking them to rank their state of mind that day. Still, Wheeler acknowledged that tactic may not catch every student in need. While schools were in session, she often relied on classmates – “probably once a week” – to alert her about friends who seemed to be hurting themselves or contemplating suicide. Now, those friends can’t see each other.

“If something’s happening at home, there’s no escape,” Wheeler said. “There’s kids that you worry about because school was their safe place. You worry about them being home alone.”

She, and every other counselor interviewed for this story, also noted the role teachers and counselors play as mandated reporters – professionals required by law to make a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. In 2018, educators submitted one-fifth of all reports alleging child maltreatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. And while child welfare agencies typically see reports dip whenever schools close for a break, they also see a surge when classes resume – suggesting not that child abuse isn’t happening during the closures, but that it isn’t being spotted.

“That means children are suffering in silence,” said Darren DaRonco, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

Similar trends have appeared in other states. In Oregon, reports to the state’s child abuse hotline dropped by 70 percent in the month after schools closed due to the coronavirus. That’s a more immediate and pronounced decline than agency officials would expect over regular school breaks, said Jake Sunderland, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“This is so much more alarming than what we see during summer, mainly because kids aren’t just away from their mandatory reporters” in school, Sunderland said. “As social isolation sets in, kids have significantly [fewer] eyes on them. They’re not visiting grandma or their cousins. They’re not going to sports practice or the swim center.”

And though abuse is among the most dangerous problems, it is far from the only one school counselors help students cope with. Issues including trouble with friends, confusion about romantic relationships and the unexpected death of a close relative or beloved teacher all fall under a counselor’s purview. Dealing with the death of a loved one has become more common due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Related: Another tool to improve student mental health? Kids talking to kids

Across Arizona, counselors expressed hope that the relationships they have tried to build in person will make it easier for students to ask for help from afar. But all — no matter the grade level they served — stressed their specific concern for elementary students, who are often too young to have their own cell phones or email accounts.

“I think – I hope – the general public is really starting to see how school really is the center of a lot of communities.”

Amanda Nolasco, school counselor specialist, Arizona Department of Education

The digital divide raised similar concerns: If no phone numbers work for a family, if emails remain unanswered, how can counselors gauge the welfare of a child?

“It’s tough. There are definitely counselors losing sleep over if their kids are OK,” said Amanda Nolasco, the school counselor specialist for the Arizona Department of Education. “I think — I hope — the general public is really starting to see how school really is the center of a lot of communities.”

As counselors try to find a way to connect with students in a virtual setting, some also must navigate bureaucratic fears of invading student privacy. Not all districts have embraced the use of online video platforms for school counseling, and labor contracts or district policies can prohibit counselors from calling students using their personal phones. But in Vancouver, Washington, where Megan Bledsoe was recently named the state counselor of the year, she turned to YouTube as a way to reach more students from Discovery Middle School, where she works.

In this screenshot from Megan Bledsoe’s YouTube channel, the Discovery Middle School counselor shares lessons with students about the importance of exercise, keeping a schedule and processing grief. Credit: Source: YouTube

One video she uploaded simply shows her walking around the Portland, Oregon, neighborhood where she lives, to remind students of the importance of exercise when they feel cooped up at home. Another features her cat, Pele, sharing tips on how to build a schedule and stay busy.

“Although it is a great look for me to spend 12 hours napping and 12 hours lounging, it is not a good look for a teenager,” Pele “says” in the video. “So make sure that you are getting up, moving, using your brain – all that good stuff. Don’t be like me.”

For their part, no counselors interviewed for this story said the job felt insurmountable in this moment. In some districts, laptops and devices sent home with students have software that tracks keywords and alerts staff before students harm themselves or someone else. And in the Phoenix Unified High School District, counselors aren’t the only ones reaching out: The district recruited central office staff, librarians and even the superintendent so that all students get a call every day to check on their well-being and needs.

In Thatcher, the rural town, Wheeler also got extra help: Her district had applied for a school safety grant and didn’t get one, but hired a second counselor last fall anyway. The pair split the elementary and secondary grades this school year, halving the student-to-counselor ratio just before the arrival of a global pandemic. But now Wheeler worries that any realistic chance of the state spending the rest of the promised money on more counselors has evaporated.

Even having two counselors in her district is not enough, she said. “We kind of just do crisis counseling,” said Wheeler, who also worries that there is no good place to send students who need more intensive services.

Along with its lack of school counselors, Arizona has a shortage of mental health providers in general, ranking 47th among all states for access to mental health care, according to the state’s Department of Health Services. The shortage is even more acute in rural areas, where the provider-to-population ratio is 57,262-to-1 compared with 18,769-to-1 in urban areas.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot [of help] here,” said Wheeler. “We’re kind of the front line.”

Child Abuse Hotline: If you are concerned that a child you know is being abused, you can call or text the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you live in Arizona, you can also reach out to state officials directly by calling 1-888-767-2445.

Suicide Hotline: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you can get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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