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Counselor Crisis: Addressing mental health concerns in Oregon's students

School Counselors in Oregon face an average caseload of 571 students. (KTVL/Genevieve Grippo)

With limited resources and growing caseloads, southern Oregon’s schools face a tall order in addressing mental health concerns in students.

The issue is publicized in the most recent study from the American School Counselor Association, a national organization that recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.

Their most recent data reveals a national average much higher than that, with one counselor for every 482 students.

But in Oregon, every counselor is assigned an average caseload of 571 students, more than double the recommended number.

School professionals said the problem often comes down to districts that are strapped for cash. The challenge then becomes stretching every dollar within the school’s budget to ensure students get the attention they need.

"The hats that they wear, you have to have ginormous head to wear the hats that they do," said Jeff Weiss, principal at South Middle School in Grants Pass. "It is tough to manage that many students and make sure that we are serving them the best that we can."

Though it’s Weiss’s last year as principal, he said staffing concerns in the counseling center are an an ongoing problem.

South Middle school boasts an enrollment of nearly 700 students, with only two counselors to help them all. Their caseloads—situated at about 350 students each—are considerably lower than the state average, but counselors said they are still feeling the pressure of their daily duties.

"There are mental health crises, there are peer conflict things to resolve, there are scheduling issues, teacher student issues,” said South Middle Counselor Laura McGarry. "It's hard to keep track of everybody. Ideally, I would have some sort of relationship with every one, but realistically there's some students I see a lot and others not so often."

McGarry said these middle school years are a crucial time for development, but online access and social media have presented new challenges.

"We see a lot of suicide comments, self-harm, home issues, and a lot of trauma in our area with drug use and poverty and things in our rural community,” she said.

A survey conducted in 2017 by the Oregon Health Authority shows it’s not just counselors that are feeling the impact.

The data include input from nearly 15,000 8th graders and 12,000 thousand 11th graders.

According the survey, a quarter of 8th graders and a third of 11th graders said their mental health condition was in just "fair" or "poor condition"

About 20 percent said they had emotional health care needs that had not been met over the past year.

"It's really difficult, because in the same sense we'd like to have additional counselors, we'd like to have an additional math teacher and an additional language arts teacher,” said Weiss. “We look at every need we possibly have, and fill it to the best of our ability."

Weiss said a growing student population means the problem will only continue to get worse, causing the district to look elsewhere for support.

Outside professionals from Options for Southern Oregon visit the school periodically, and drug and alcohol specialists meet with students to educate them about the dangers of substance abuse.

Weiss said staff also undergoes in-depth training to help them treat students dealing with traumatic experiences and adversity.

In these ways, he said the school is trying to get the best bang for its buck.

"I think that in our country, there's an epidemic of anxiety and depression in our youth that we need to pay attention to,” said Michelle Cummings, Chief Academic Officer for the Medford School District.

In response to mental health concerns, MSD decided to break counselor duties into two different positions.

Their current model has both academic and mental health counselors on the pay roll. Academic counselors handle scheduling and class concerns, while mental health counselors are in charge of emotional well-being.

According to Cummings, the outline has shown success.

"Looking at attendance, looking at credits accruing towards graduation and ultimately graduation rates, we are seeing significant improvement in all of those,” she said.

The additional staffing is thanks to part of last year's $1.7 million bond, but even with the extra heads, Cummings said more help is always wanted.

"Our country and our state in particular needs to fund K-12 education more significantly. There are extraordinary things we could accomplish for students given enough resources," she said.

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