May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Michigan students have seen a lack of services for mental health.
The state of Michigan ranks second to last in the nation for available student counselors. A Grief Service Coordinator at Michael’s Place in Traverse City, Kristi Spencer-Nemec, says mental health workers’ caseload is not sustainable.
“They’re not able to be really impactful in the way that each individual student needs,” Spencer-Nemec states. “Depression and anxiety rates are through the roof. Everyone’s needs are higher including our students, who are really struggling.”
A social worker at Forest Area Community Schools and Region President for the Michigan Association of School Social Workers, Sheri Conner, says the shortages have been felt harder in Northern Michigan.
“They just don’t have as many people to apply for those spots. I think those rural, rural schools miss out on mental health supports within the school building,” Conner says.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to 250 students. Forest Area Community Schools has two counselors for 517 students. Conner says the shortage of mental healthcare workers in schools is due to many social workers and psychologists that find opening a private practice more lucrative.
“When we get our license as a social worker we can open our own private practice. It’s been in my mind that one day maybe I’ll do private practice. Then I see the impact I make in the school and I think that’s huge because we get to see kids from preschool on to graduation. We get to see grief, trauma, ADHD. We get to see all of those things we would see in a private practice,” Conner explains. “So without us, I fear that kids don’t have somebody who can listen and actually help them dig into what’s going on.”
Michigan Legislators introduced a bill last month that hopes to tackle the issue. The Student Mental Health Apprenticeship for Retention and Training, or SMART Program aims to increase mental health workers in schools. The bill would provide school counselors, social workers and psychologists tuition assistance for those who remain within their district.
Conner says that although she’s worried northern Michigan may get looked over, she says she’s hopeful the bill gives students the help they need.
“I mean I’m an optimist. I’m always excited about whatever we can do to help make the world better and help kids be better and help kids see their potential. That they can do great things, that no matter what their interests are, they are going to be great adults,” Conner says.