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.”