Editorial: Schools face obstacles in staffing for mental health

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the difficulties of staffing public schools with armed security. But staffing schools with mental health professionals will be just as tough.

According to Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, there’s a significant shortage of talent to draw from in the field of mental health.

“Trying to find people to do that is a major challenge,” Fennoy told The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board recently. “It’s one of those jobs now where the staffing demand is so high.”

The reasons are many: Millions of Americans suffering from addictions; Iraq and Afghanistan veterans plagued by post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD); psychiatrists aging out, their average age now in the mid-50s; relatively few medical students following them into the profession, in part for its reputation for not paying as well as other specialties.

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School districts face another problem: “In the recession, those [mental health] were probably the first positions to leave,” Fennoy said.

A 2016 analysis by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration projects shortages in nine separate mental health care professions nationwide by 2025. Six of those professions will be short by more than 10,000 full-time employees (psychiatrists; clinical, counseling and school psychologists; substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors; mental health and substance abuse social workers; mental health counselors; school counselors) — if, as is likely, demand increases 20 percent over 2013.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 700 students, but the Florida average is nearly one in 2,000. Similarly, the American School Counselor Association recommends one guidance counselor for every 250 students, but Palm Beach County counselors cover nearly twice as many students.

Thankfully, “mental health care” has been getting a lot more billing since the mass shooting deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Florida Legislature, acting quickly after the Feb. 14 carnage, allocated $28 million to expand mental health services statewide, to go along with $162 million for armed officers in every public school in the state. Palm Beach County schools got $3.9 million of the mental-health money (not including $400,000 for charter schools).

That $3.9 million, while welcome, needs to be spread around 180 schools and 191,000 students. “It barely scratches the surface,” Mike Burke, the district’s chief financial officer, told the Editorial Board.

The school district’s staffing problems are underscored by the disappointing performance of a private company that promised to put mental-health counselors in the county’s 39 middle and seven alternative schools, and one high school, for free. But Motivational Coaches of America was plagued by high turnover, with counselors saying they weren’t paid and quitting to find other jobs, a Palm Beach Post investigation revealed. Last month, the School Board canceled its 2016 agreement with the company.

Fennoy said that school officials are thinking about an innovative approach to the problem: setting up an “academy” in a high school to familiarize students with the mental-health field and give them a push they can continue on to college. In time, maybe some of those graduates would come back to work in the school system.

That’s a great idea for the future, but solutions are needed now. To put a minimum of one mental-health professional in each school, the district hopes to partner with community providers. Depending on the type of service, the bill will run $5 million to $13.2 million. If there’s not enough money, officials say, resources “will be prioritized and shared among schools” — not the best fix.

RELATED: Editorial: District should continue to take the lead on school safety

There is one sure way of obtaining the money to put at least one mental health professional in every school — as well as to double the district’s police department (enabling an armed officer in every school) and raise teacher pay to boot. That’s to raise the school property ta x to $100 per $100,000 in assessed property value from $25 per. That proposal, being considered for the November ballot, would give the district an additional $150 million a year.

Too many of our students are at risk because they’re unable to deal with a problem on their own. Too many of our schools are at risk because there is no one there for that troubled student to talk to.

We know now how dangerous that can be.

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