WINCHESTER — “Sad” and “frustrating” are words some local school counselors use when they talk about the obstacles they face as more students seek mental health services at school.

In Winchester and Frederick County public schools, an increasing numbers of students are seeking help, while staff members grow outnumbered.

Jonathan Faringer, a counselor at Adm. Richard E. Byrd Middle School in Frederick County, said it feels like he spends more time helping students facing depression and suicidal thoughts than he did 14 years ago, when he became a counselor.

Amber Mungavin, director of counseling for Winchester Public Schools, said the city school division has seen an uptick in mental health screenings.

Teens and children suffering from clinical depression grew by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to a study by Ramin Mojtabai, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The recommended student-to-school counselor ratio is 250 to 1, according to the American School Counselor Association.

In Frederick County, as the student population grows, counselors face higher ratios. At Byrd Middle School, for example, the ratio is 320 to 1. At Evendale Elementary School, it’s 500 to 1. At Sherando High School, it’s about 330 or 340 to 1.

The only way Frederick County counselors see any hope of relief is if the county builds more schools to handle the growth. A 12th elementary school is currently being built in the Stephenson area, and construction of a new Robert E. Aylor Middle School is set to start in the spring of 2019.

Despite the challenges, Faringer, Evendale counselor Chrystal Hawkins and Sherando counselor Debbie Potter agree that school administrators do a good job working alongside counselors.

“None of us would do this if we didn’t really like it,” Potter said. “But there is definitely a level of frustration when you feel like there is a lot of crisis going on.”

School counselors can help in an immediate crisis and refer students for deeper, outside therapy while continuing to help them at school, Faringer said. But school counselors aren’t typically trained therapists, he stressed. “I think we can be helpful, but there’s probably a deeper level of care that’s needed that we’re not trained to provide.”

Hawkins said it’s sometimes a challenge to get families to seek the help their child may need outside of school. Potter added that the stigma of mental illness prevents some families from seeking outside mental health assistance.

“Sometimes there’s a family situation that [leaves you feeling] frustrated because you want to help that student but it’s difficult because their family may have a different set of values,” Potter said.

Sometimes it’s just plain difficult for parents to find the right outside therapy for their child, Faringer said. Students with serious mental health issues often need to travel to hospitals in other cities for treatment. Families may also struggle to find affordable care, he said.

Shelly Kerr, freshman counselor at John Handley High School in Winchester, said counselors can have a major impact on a students’ lives, whether it’s helping them control their anxiety or just show up to class.

Handley junior counselor Justine Beck Rose has a student ratio of 299 to 1, while Kerr has a ratio of 351 to 1.

The student-to-counselor ratio in Clarke County Public Schools is 275 to 1, said Clarke Superintendent Chuck Bishop.

Kerr jokes that working with freshman makes her a “chaos coordinator.”

“We deal with day-to-day drama that’s leftover from middle school,” she said.

On a recent day, Kerr had to handle an argument between students and answer a call from a teacher who was concerned about a student, while another freshman knocked on her door to ask a question — all before 9 a.m.

“I dealt with all of that. None of it was on my plan,” Kerr said. “The job for us...is to do all of that without letting anyone seeing us be rattled one bit.”

In the past two years, there have been increased efforts at Handley to screen students who may be suicidal, Kerr added.

But impossible student-to-counselor ratios are a “classic challenge” within the education system, said Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, who has worked in various school leadership positions for 20 years. The number of school counselors, psychologists and social workers needs expansion, he said.

“Right now, we ask counselors to do everything. It’s almost impossible,” Van Heukelum said.

It’s not all “crisis mode,” though, Faringer said. “We’re interacting with super neat, really smart, intelligent, awesome kids that are learning and being successful. You can’t beat that.”

— Contact Anna Merod at amerod@winchesterstar.com

(6) comments

swright

Let's talk about what this article should really be screaming about to people....Mental Health Issues among children and teenagers. "There has been a 37% increase in clinical depression from 2005-2014." What is the difference between 2005 and 2014? Can anyone tell me?.....SOCIAL MEDIA!!! This is the biggest root of the cause. Children and teenagers are constantly bullied and harassed by their peers 24/7 and there is no way for them to get away from it. They also feel the constant need to live up to everyone's "fairy tale" life that is posted on social media. They are not yet at the age for their brains to comprehend that what they see in pictures online is not always the sunshine story in someone else's life. They are not able to just say I'm going to turn this off and not worry about all the posts because it doesn't matter what anyone else says, thinks, or does. Social media needs to have limited access to those under the age of 18 if not a full restriction of it until the age of 18. I am certainly glad that I didn't go to school during the age of social media.

Chupacabra

I still blame the parents for allowing them to have access to anti-social media.

swright

Well that too, my daughter may not like me very much for it but she will not have free reign of what she does on the internet. She'll understand later in life.

libertyspirit

"The only way Frederick County counselors see any hope of relief is if the county builds more schools to handle the growth."
Huh? Wouldn't hiring more counselors be cheaper than building new schools?

JohnGalt

As a parent that had their special needs child in Frederick County schools you are just a little of the mark. Yes they do need better and more counselors, but they need to make sure that the new schools have the accommodations that special needs students need. NREP is a great resource, I would like to see it moved to a larger facility. My daughter went through Sherando. The problem is each year the students are given a new teacher which is the case worker, most need to keep the same case worker as they have developed a relationship with that student over the first year. The student then trust that teacher and BAM the next year they have a new case worker and it starts all over again. When my child was transferred to NREP she did much better and kept the same case worker for their final two years.
So yes the system is broken, but just hiring more counselors is not the answer.

trunuyawkr

You are 1000% right; AND, your (correct) answer doesn't fit the narrative that the district is trying to push - that of *needing* new schools.

What they truly NEED to do is fix the broken ones - Aylor, Apple Pie, JWMS, etc - before sinking another $100M in a new 4th HS or another elementary school serving only one neighborhood.

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