School counselors and psychologists stand out among the unsung heroes of the pandemic and they continue to serve on the frontlines to address an unprecedented mental health crisis in K-12 classrooms.
To be sure, student mental health challenges began well before the pandemic. The National Survey of Children’s Health found that the share of children diagnosed with depression and anxiety increased by 24% and 27%, respectively, between 2016 and 2019.
Since then, mental health emergencies have become even more prevalent. As many as six in 10 children and adolescents report high levels of mental health “distress,” mainly in the form of anxiety and depression symptoms, according to a review of multiple studies published in January 2022.
“In the midst of this mental health crisis, schools are seeing increased referrals for special education, yet they are simultaneously experiencing critical shortages across the board with mental health professionals, specifically school psychologists,” says Kathleen Woodward, a senior assessment consultant for Pearson and a nationally certified school psychologist. In fact, while the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students, estimates of the current ratio nationwide stack up to one psychologist to 1,211 students, with some states nearing ratios of one psychologist to 5,000 students.
Help may be on the way: President Joe Biden’s proposed 2023 budget includes $1 billion for schools to increase the number of health professionals, including counselors, psychologists and social workers, as well as $438 million to support wraparound services. But even with additional funding, school counselors and psychologists will continue to shoulder a considerable task.
We’ve all heard the adage to don our oxygen mask before helping others, but that can seem challenging when the demands of the job are so great. And the truth is that while much of the focus has been on student mental health, the prevalence of anxiety, depression and stress has increased in adults as well.
While we often have a propensity to notice issues in others rather than looking inward, mental health professionals must realize they deserve the same protection they give those in their care as they attend to their own wellbeing amid the toll of the pandemic.
With that in mind, Woodward offers four key ways school counselors and psychologists can cope with the current feelings of overwhelm in the face of these significantly increased workloads.
1. Recognize what burnout looks like
One sign typically associated with burnout in many professions is a general disengagement from their role. But this experience does not typically happen for the helping professions, Woodward says. “They’re continuing to give everything they have and doing it repeatedly, which is often what’s leading to the burnout,” she says. She recommends watching for other signs of burnout, which may involve trouble sleeping, lack of concentration and changes in mood, such as irritability or anger.
2. Seek support
A fundamental way to alleviate stress is to connect with others in the profession who face similar struggles. There are myriad ways to do so, from having regular coffee dates with colleagues to joining online discussion groups and listservs or becoming active in local, state and national professional organizations and associations. “These types of networks can help decrease the feelings of isolation that have become so common because fellow professionals understand and are experiencing what you’re going through, too,” Woodward notes.
She cites a recent session at the NASP Annual Convention on the topic of mental health screening, in which participants spent the first 45 minutes talking about the current realities of their role. “I was taken aback by how eager everyone was to share their concerns and challenges they’re currently facing,” she comments, adding that these types of experiences can feel cathartic.
3. Adjust your schedule
With heavy workloads and competing priorities, school mental health professionals may find it impossible to delay completing a task until the next day because many situations amount to crises that require immediate handling. Reorganizing your daily calendar according to your energy level can help. “Block out time for tasks that are necessary and yet a bit mundane or less desirable, such as report writing and paperwork,” Woodward recommends.
She finds handling those activities in the morning can help clear your head and give you the time and energy to focus on other issues as they arise throughout the day. Postponing those tasks until nights and weekends can further sap energy levels and contribute to stress.
4. Free up your time
There are many ideas for improving productivity, such as responding to messages quickly rather than letting them pile up or batching similar work, such as by doing all your paperwork at once. But mental health professionals — and the schools and districts they serve — should evaluate and consider adopting tools that help them save time and energy without sacrificing quality in their work assessing students.
“These platforms have revolutionized psychological and psychoeducational assessment because they decrease the amount of time spent both administering and scoring the tests,” Woodward says.
For example, Pearson’s Q-interactive tool allows professionals to administer performance-based tests via iPad, streamlining the process immediately. "It eliminates the burden of lugging around physical test kits or having to drive from building to building to retrieve a physical test kit or even having to wait for the kits to become available because you are sharing them with colleagues,” Woodward says.
In addition, automated scoring saves practitioners about 60 minutes per evaluation. And they don’t have to wait on paper forms that need completion or to remind parents and teachers to return them.
“We consistently hear positive feedback from users who say the new digital process is a game changer,” Woodward says. “It validates what we as Pearson are focusing on as a company: the human factor and reminding people they need to take care of themselves so they can apply energy to their students’ needs.”
Whether you need a digital overhaul of your assessment process or an opportunity to share with colleagues the stresses you are feeling at this moment, making space for your wellbeing remains critical to providing high-quality care for the students in your school and district.
Get more ideas for supporting your mental health and that of your students, by visiting Pearson Assessments’ Resource Center.