School counselor recruitment efforts now underway

The California Department of Education is kickstarting efforts to recruit 10,000 new school-based mental health clinicians, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced during an Aug. 4 press conference.

The latest state budget provides for new and expanded grant opportunities for aspiring mental health clinicians who want to work in K-12 schools. The CDE is working with colleges, universities, community-based organizations, the California Student Aid Commission and others to raise awareness of this statewide recruitment effort.

“This is going to be a game changer for our ability to staff up in California,” Thurmond said, noting that even before the pandemic, California only had about a third of the clinicians it needed to support students. “We haven’t always had the people to help shoulder the load that we need to address the various mental health needs of our students. We have secured the funding to do that, and we’re going to begin our efforts to start recruiting and working with partners to make that happen.”

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona have deemed the mental health impacts of the pandemic a public health crisis for youth, with many children having lost family and friends to the pandemic. Young people are also experiencing increased anxiety and depression due to isolation, challenges at home, a spike in hate crimes and more.

Despite the urgent need, many local educational agencies across the country lack enough school psychologists and counselors to respond to children’s ever-growing needs. Just 8 percent of districts nationwide met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students during the first year of the pandemic. Only 14 percent met the ratio of one school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

District leaders want to be able to help address student mental health concerns, and for once, funding is not the main concern. LEAs can use federal COVID-relief funds to hire more mental health support staff. However, the pipeline of school psychologists and other mental health professionals was struggling to keep up with demand even before the pandemic.

Building up that pipeline is a major priority, Thurmond said. California’s 2022–23 state budget included:

  • $184 million for teacher and school counselor residency programs
  • An expansion of an existing $350 million residency program to school counselors
  • An expansion the current Golden State Teacher Grant Program to graduate students pursuing degrees to become mental health clinicians who serve California students, allowing them to receive grants up to $20,000

Thurmond said his office is promoting the grant opportunities for aspiring clinicians — including targeted outreach to candidates of color seeking to become mental health clinicians. Just as having a diverse group of teachers has been shown to benefit all students, so too does having more racially and ethnically diverse counselors and psychologists.

The CDE is also working with state and private partners to provide mental health programs and tools to educators in real time, as well as tools to support district efforts to expand access to mental health resources. For example, while Medi-Cal dollars are available to LEAs to help cover costs, it can be a “complicated system,” Thurmond said.

“Medi-Cal is an incredible resource for expanding mental health in our state, and it’s very underutilized,” he said. “The California Department of Education is putting together a training program to train school districts on how to utilize Medi-Cal to address many of the mental health needs that students may have.”

This will be a long-term effort designed to meet the long-term needs of young people, Thurmond reiterated. Students have undoubtedly been impacted by the events of the last few years, but this and other efforts to expand children’s access to mental health resources can get them back on track, he said.

“We are setting out to meet the social and emotional needs of our students so that we can continue to support their learning,” Thurmond said. “Many pediatricians estimate that it will take years for our young people to overcome the trauma of the pandemic and the difficulties that they have experienced, but we know that they can. I worked for many years in school-based mental health, and we know that we can provide the kind of wraparound supports that will help California students to be successful.”