How Rural School Counselors Confront Life in a ‘Mental Health Desert’


ELK CITY — One pupil throws his classmates’ pencil field on the ground in anger. One other bites her personal arm out of frustration. Others run screaming from their school rooms.

Some Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty college students are celebrating as summer season break approaches. Others are dreading the top of the varsity 12 months, performing out in concern of what the subsequent three months may convey. 

Faculty counselor Kim Hamm worries about college students who received’t have sufficient to eat this summer season. And people with out air con or working water. She wonders what number of might be left alone whereas their caretakers are working two or three jobs. And who will spend their days anticipating the subsequent assault from an abusive member of the family. 

Hamm has spent most of Could serving to college students ages 4 to 9 establish and address their emotions, which could be triggered by instability at dwelling. 

“They know that, right here, they’re protected and we’re not going to harm them,” Hamm stated. “And plenty of our youngsters, sadly, don’t go dwelling to that on daily basis.”

About 100 miles west of Oklahoma Metropolis on Interstate 40, Elk Metropolis is dwelling to almost 12,000 residents whose monetary stability ebbs and flows with the unstable oil and gasoline trade. The close by North Fork Correctional Facility introduced some households to city to be near a liked one. And college students face charges of poverty, particular wants and suicide larger than the state common.   

Kim Hamm, an Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty counselor, talks to a pre-kindergarten pupil who’s enjoying with sensory toys bought with Venture AWARE funds in her workplace. Hamm stated deprived, abused and uncared for college students’ habits deteriorates towards the top of the varsity 12 months as a result of they’re afraid or burdened about spending months away from faculty, which gives security when life at house is turbulent. (Courtesy picture)

In her six years as a college counselor, Hamm has realized to anticipate these wants, making extra time in the direction of the top of the varsity 12 months to satisfy with college students one-on-one. However she doesn’t all the time have the bandwidth. 

Faculty counselors’ duties vary from serving to develop individualized studying plans for college kids with particular must proctoring the third-grade studying check. 

They enroll college students in courses and guarantee they meet state math and science necessities. They supply school and profession recommendation and assist them discover and apply for scholarships. They wrangle college students throughout morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, run school-sponsored meals and garments pantries and educate respiration methods to these with check nervousness. 

Low pay and growing obligations have left Oklahoma with a trainer scarcity, which implies counselors like Hamm are taking up extra work leaving much less time for struggling college students. 

Counselors refer probably the most troubled children to neighborhood psychological well being counselors. However they’re additionally in brief provide particularly in rural areas like Elk Metropolis the place the ratio of psychological healthcare suppliers to residents is 1 to 150,000. 

With out ample native assets, the duty of scholars’ psychological well being care is falling to high school counselors who’re outnumbered and overwhelmed.

A federal program is growing help for college kids in six rural faculty districts in what the state psychological well being and training departments name “psychological well being deserts.” However colleges are discovering it tough to rent certified caregivers and COVID-19 restrictions have halted packages and restricted in-person therapy. 

College students are seen leaving Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty on the finish of the varsity day. Faculty counselor Kim Hamm stated for some college students faculty is a protected place and leaving isn’t a contented however fearful time of day for college kids who don’t have sufficient to eat or are abused by relations at dwelling. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

A Response Impressed By Sandy Hook

Since 2018, the State Division of Training has acquired two U.S. Division of Well being and Human Providers grants totaling $18 million. 

Oklahoma’s Venture AWARE, quick for Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Training, is in its third 12 months of the five-year grant at Woodward, Elk Metropolis and Weatherford Public Colleges and its first 12 months at Ada, Atoka and Checotah Public Colleges. 

The districts had been chosen by the state division for his or her lack of therapy suppliers and high-risk pupil populations. 

Oklahoma college students are among the most traumatized within the nation, in line with a number of nationwide well being rankings together with a current survey carried out by a bunch based mostly at Johns Hopkins College. However children in these rural districts had been extra more likely to have entry to firearms, reside in poverty, have an incarcerated guardian, use medication, expertise despair and die by suicide, in line with the state’s grant utility.

These college students are extra inclined to psychological sickness. And with out therapy, they will face much more harmful obstacles as they age, usually resulting in their very own violent encounters, substance abuse or incarceration.

In one of many nation’s deadliest faculty shootings, a 20-year-old killed six adults and 20 college students at Sandy Hook Elementary Faculty in 2012. Since then, the Substance Abuse and Psychological Well being Providers Administration has despatched thousands and thousands to colleges nationwide with high-risk college students to stop violence perpetrated by younger individuals.  

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Of their first 12 months of the grant, Atoka, Ada and Checotah colleges in Japanese Oklahoma spent a lot of the 12 months assessing pupil wants and coaching employees. At Elk Metropolis, Weatherford and Woodward colleges in Western Oklahoma, Venture AWARE solid forward regardless of adjustments to packages that had been derailed by the pandemic. 

Group occasions goal to cut back stigma round psychological well being challenges and therapy and educate dad and mom and college students about wholesome habits just like the significance of sleep and suggestions for social media use. Elk Metropolis paused occasions within the spring of 2020 whereas Weatherford took its on-line and noticed a spike in participation. 

Fifth by means of twelfth grade college students in any respect six districts accomplished psychological well being assessments, which helps educators establish college students who’re distracted, sad, scared, lonely or are vulnerable to performing out. 

Group psychological well being counselors had began to satisfy with troubled college students in among the Western Oklahoma colleges. Mother and father need to comply with remedy however bringing professionals into the faculties reduces obstacles for households who lack transportation or who really feel embarrassed visiting a neighborhood therapy facility. Many of those providers had been paused attributable to COVID-19. 

Some Venture AWARE colleges began group remedy periods led by licensed psychological well being professionals for college kids with persistent stress usually triggered by traumatic experiences like an absent or abusive guardian. 

The grant additionally skilled educators in any respect six districts in a classroom program that teaches battle decision and empathy. 

Liz Henthorn, a kindergarten trainer at Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty, listens as her college students fee how they’re feeling on the finish of the day. Henthorn checks in together with her college students twice a day by means of a program often known as Circles that she says teaches college students coping abilities and empathy. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Simply earlier than the bell rang on a Monday afternoon, kindergarteners sat in a circle on a rug on the entrance of Liz Henthorn’s classroom at Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty. One-by-one the scholars rated how they’re feeling as they ready to go dwelling. They describe their emotions as inexperienced, yellow or crimson in the event that they’re having a tough day and their friends provide consolation and recommendation. 

One pupil stated he was feeling unhappy as a result of his canine ran away that morning. One other pupil was feeling crimson as a result of she had a nasty dream. Different college students spoke up saying they might relate or that they’re sorry that occurred. 

“We’re educating children to establish their emotions and giving recommendations to manage,” Henthorn stated. “And once we do it as a bunch the youngsters are studying about empathy and fascinated by methods to assist one another and that’s simply as necessary.”

Liz Henthorn, a kindergarten trainer at Elk Metropolis Elementary Faculty, listens as her college students fee how they’re feeling on the finish of the day. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Academics, counselors and directors had been skilled to supply coping abilities to college students who face common challenges like disagreements with classmates or stress about what to do after commencement. However few are certified to assist extra essential college students, like these with psychological sickness or who’ve skilled trauma.

Woodward Public Colleges reported 82 homeless college students in the course of the 2017-18 faculty 12 months – greater than twice the state common. Practically two-thirds of scholars at Woodward and Elk Metropolis Public Colleges certified without cost and lowered lunches, in comparison with the state’s common of fifty%. In Elk Metropolis, 140 of the district’s 2,110 college students had a guardian who was incarcerated. And all three Western Oklahoma districts had larger than common suicide charges.  

These districts depend on faculty counselors to help these college students, although most lack the coaching. 

And the grant doesn’t tackle the ratio of counselors to college students, which is much above nationwide suggestions. 

Districts additionally deliberate to extend referrals to neighborhood therapy facilities facilitated by the grant. Demand for psychological well being care spiked in the course of the pandemic, additional straining the world’s suppliers and leaving households with few choices. 

Weatherford elementary college students are seen consuming lunch within the faculty’s cafeteria. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

The Difficult Seek for Counselors

Faculty counselors can take heed to college students and provide coping methods, however their means to assist is proscribed. Licensed counselors can present remedy and diagnose college students with psychological sickness. 

Elk Metropolis, Woodward and Weatherford districts hoped to convey extra licensed skilled counselors into colleges by hiring new employees and utilizing Venture AWARE funds to pay for coaching for present faculty counselors. Every district employed one licensed psychological well being supplier who serves all college students. The districts have been unable to rent any new faculty counselors and no current counselors have been licensed. 

The state requires faculty counselors to have a grasp’s diploma in a associated area or two years of expertise, and move the state’s basic training, skilled educating and faculty counseling exams. 

Coaching for licensed skilled counselors requires a further 60 graduate-level school hours and three,000 hours of supervised counseling. Counselors should additionally move an examination earlier than being licensed. 

Training prices are more likely to whole $21,000 to $33,000 relying on the varsity, in line with the newest state averages. And that doesn’t embody charges for supervision or the licensing examination. 

The grant can pay tuition prices for varsity counselors to get their license. Solely two of 16 faculty counselors in Elk Metropolis, Weatherford and Woodward have taken the provide. 

Faculty counselors stated it’s nonetheless an costly and prolonged endeavour that leads to extra work with no enhance in pay or a promotion. 

“I do know that it will give me extra in depth counseling coaching, however I feel presently in my life with young children it’s simply in all probability not going to occur,” stated Hamm, who has a 10-month-old and a 3-year-old. “If I used to be going to make extra as a college counselor with it then possibly I might, however I’m not going to so I’m simply not going to spend an entire lot of time to get that.”

For varsity counselors who do get their license, the job doesn’t change a lot. They usually have the identical paperwork, testing duties and recess obligation. However they’re additionally counseling the varsity’s most traumatized children, a bunch that’s rising following the pandemic. 

Oklahoma has 1,841 faculty counselors and practically 695,000 college students, in line with State Division of Training reviews. The division doesn’t observe what number of faculty counselors have their skilled counseling license.

The American Faculty Counselor Affiliation recommends a ratio of 1 faculty counselor to 250 college students. Oklahoma mandates 1 faculty counselor per 450 center and highschool college students. The state doesn’t have a threshold for elementary colleges. 

Not each faculty has a devoted counselor. Some have groups relying on pupil inhabitants, how colleges prioritize funding and disperse duties. 

The Affiliation additionally recommends counselors spend a minimum of 80% of their time working straight with or for particular person college students. Oklahoma Watch interviewed 10 counselors throughout the state. Most stated they spend nearly all of their day doing clerical work. Relying on the time of 12 months, about 20 to 50% of their time is spent with college students. 

Elizabeth Moss, a seventh and eighth grade counselor at Woodward Center Faculty, stated she is without doubt one of the lucky ones as a result of she spends about 50% of her time assembly with college students one-on-one because of the assistance of her administration. Even with the group periods she leads, Moss stated she nonetheless hasn’t been capable of meet the nationwide advice.

“A whole lot of what I cope with are the outcomes of households who’re in disaster, the place there’s dependancy, different points which can be associated to poverty and the youngsters present as much as faculty and there’s plenty of fallout from that,” Moss stated. “And so we have now children who’re depressed. We’ve had children who’re suicidal. Anxieties are actually excessive.”

Lora Anderson, a college counselor at Ada Junior Excessive Faculty, talks to college students about on-line enrollment and the way to decide on courses for subsequent faculty 12 months. (Courtesy picture)

Moss is certainly one of two faculty counselors profiting from Venture AWARE funding to get her skilled counseling license. 

Her principal took over her ACT and pre-ACT testing, scheduling and enrollment duties permitting Moss to spend extra time with college students in disaster. 

“I might like to see much more taken off of the shoulders of counselors in order that we may maintain our youngsters’ wants higher,” Moss stated. “However I really really feel blessed right here that I’m not overwhelmed, like so many counselors.”

At Ada Junior Excessive Faculty, counselor Lora Anderson spends about 25% of her time working with troubled college students. 

Many faculty counselors go into the job to propel college students’ tutorial success, to not present remedy. Anderson does her finest to assist college students however stated she isn’t skilled to assist children with acute wants.

“That’s not what I need to do,” Anderson stated after returning to her desk from lunch obligation. “I accomplish that many alternative issues to assist college students. If I needed to be a psychological well being counselor, I wouldn’t work in a college.”

Michelle Taylor, President-Elect of the Oklahoma Faculty Counselor Affiliation and counselor at Adair Excessive Faculty, stated the job has modified rather a lot since she began and counselors at smaller colleges like hers are sometimes overwhelmed juggling paperwork, check proctoring and counseling college students. (Courtesy picture)

Michelle Taylor, President-Elect of the Oklahoma Faculty Counselor Affiliation, stated the group doesn’t observe what number of faculty counselors have their license. However based mostly on coaching she’s attended and led through the years, Taylor stated it’s probably that about 1 in 5 faculty counselors goes on to develop into licensed. 

Faculty counselors are serving twin roles whether or not they need to or not. Like swim instructors at a pool, most faculty counselors see their position as constructing stronger swimmers. However as psychological well being challenges proceed to develop, counselors additionally need to function lifeguards, diving into the deep finish to rescue drowning children. 

“Counselors in rural colleges are usually treading extra water,” Taylor stated. “Some of us are so overwhelmed with the job they’ve, they don’t have the time or the motivation to hunt out further coaching. It’s simply not accessible for folk.”

Taylor has been a college counselor for greater than 20 years and has her skilled counseling license. She at present works with college students at Adair Excessive Faculty in northeast Oklahoma. 

She stated the job has modified rather a lot since she began. Check necessities are always evolving. School admissions and scholarship purposes appear to get longer yearly. And college students need to speak extra. 

Youngsters are extra keen to open up about their points, particularly since psychological well being is talked about extra brazenly for the reason that pandemic, Taylor stated. And college counselors need to be able to pay attention and assist. 

“I feel we needs to be those doing this work as a result of we already know the scholars and so they already know us so it’s faster to get to that belief that may take a very long time to develop,” Taylor stated. “That’s when it turns into about priorities and we have now to answer what the scholars want first after which fear about all the things else.”

Elk Metropolis Center Faculty college students took a psychological well being screening originally of Lana Graham’s geography class in March. Graham stated for the reason that coronavirus pandemic started, her college students appear extra anxious and depressed than ever. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visible storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on home violence, psychological well being and nursing houses affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or Observe her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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