An article in the latest APA Monitor (the monthly news magazine of the American Psychological Association), reveals that budget cutbacks nationwide and a growing focus on academic learning, has resulted in fewer school psychologists being available to help children and adolescents with social, emotional, and behavioral problems. The National Association for School Psychologists (NASP) recommends one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students, but “in many states, that ratio is more in the neighborhood of one to 2,000, though in some states it goes as high as one to 3,500,” says Philip Lazarus, PhD, director of the school psychology program at Florida International University and 2011–12 NASP president.
This strikes me as appalling. Even a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500-700 students seems too large, especially when you consider that school psychologists are responsible not just for helping students with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties, but for assessing and monitoring the 13% of all students who receive special education services, which in itself is a full-time job. In my experience, many school psychologists’ duties are primarily testing students for special education. This, despite the fact that there are so many students in our schools who really need the emotional support that a school psychologist or counselor can provide. One statistic that really startles me is that while less than 1% of students are actually diagnosed as having emotional/behavioral disorders and receive services in the schools, in reality 9-19% of all school-aged children meet the criteria for emotional and behavioral disorders (see Hartfield & Clark, Psychology in the Schools, October, 2004). .
So, here’s the situation. You’ve got 9-19% of all students who really, badly, need the support and special services of a school psychologist or counselor. Of this group, 8-18% don’t even get diagnosed. And for the less than 1% of students who do receive services, the school psychologist is able only to spend a small fraction of her time providing those services, because the bulk of her work must consist of testing students for special education (e.g. students diagnosed as ADHD, LD etc.). Add to this the trend noted above, that school budgets are tightening up and creating a climate where school psychologists have to serve more and more students, and you get a situation that is truly alarming.
We’ve got students killing other students and teachers in schools around the country, students committing suicide at record levels, students suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems, and the school psychologists necessary for helping to address and ameliorate these problems are responsible for increasing numbers of students, and have precious little time in their hectic schedules to provide the assistance needed for each individual child. Everyone seems to be squawking these days about test scores, accountability, and more math, reading, and science in the classroom. Folks, those things are small potatoes. It’s time we turned our attention to something far more important: the mental health of our children and adolescents!