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Access to mental health school staff is declining in New Jersey, report finds

Black and Latino students in New Jersey have less access to school mental health staff today than they did a decade ago, a troubling trend revealed in a study released this week as the need for such services grows. intensified after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past 10 years, while access to mental health staff in schools has declined for Black and Latinx students, it has increased for White and Asian American students across the state, according to analysis of data from New Jersey State Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank. .

The opposing trends highlight the unequal access to these school resources, as black and Latino children are more likely to live in poverty, attend schools that impose disciplinary measures such as suspensions and suffer disproportionate negative effects from the pandemic.

The decline in access to mental health school staff for students of color may be a consequence of years of school underfunding in New Jersey and cannot rely solely on the influx of federal relief money. COVID which is expected to dry up by 2024 for a fix, said report author and education policy analyst Mark Weber.

School leaders and policymakers who are increasingly interested in addressing student mental health issues should look at school funding to ensure districts with students of color have the money they need. to recruit long-term mental health staff, the report suggests.

“We need to look at these things within the racial equity framework that we’re proposing in this report,” Weber said. “It’s important to think about how these resources are unequally distributed among students of different races and ethnicities.”

The study analyzed state Department of Education school staff and student enrollment data, looking at the number of nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, anti-bullying and substance abuse coordinators per 1,000 students by race or ethnicity.

In 2008, public schools in the state had an average of 8.2 mental health staff per 1,000 students, which increased to 8.6 staff per 1,000 students in 2020. During this period , mental health staffing per 1,000 white students fell from 7.4 to 8.5.

Meanwhile, mental health staffing fell from 10.3 to 8.5 per 1,000 black students during this period. For Latinx students, the ratio also decreased from 9 to 8.4 per 1,000.

Access to school mental health staff now hovers around the same ratio of 8.5 staff per 1,000 students for students of all races. But the fall in that ratio for black and Latino students comes amid an increased need for mental health support.

State Health Assessment data shows that approximately 25% of black children under age 5 and 23% of Hispanic children lived in poverty in New Jersey between 2016 and 2020. During this period , 11.4% of white children and 4.5% of Asian American children lived in poverty, according to statistics.

Living in poverty can lead to a higher risk of mental illness, chronic illness and other developmental delays in children, according to research on the impact of poverty on health.

The NJPP Mental Health Staffing Trends Study also showed that school counselor staffing increased for white students from 2.7 per 1,000 white students in 2008 to 3, 2 per 1,000 in 2020. But there has been a steep decline for black students, from 4 counselors per 1,000 black students in 2008 to 2.6 per 1,000 in 2020.

At Newark Public Schools, the school board passed a budget for 2022-23 that included an increase in social workers and counselors for the district’s 38,000 students. For this new school year, the budget covers the salaries of 45 new social worker positions, for a total of 164 social workers, and one new counselor position, for a total of 89 counsellors.

If these positions are filled, the current ratio of 483 students to one counselor, which is well above the 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association, could be slightly improved.

Cultural perspectives are often overlooked

Another element of addressing students’ mental health needs is the stigma that still persists in some communities today, said Kirk Johnson, assistant professor of justice studies and medical humanities at Montclair State University.

“Religion and spirituality are still very important in people’s lives, especially in black and Latino communities,” Johnson said. “Some families think that if they have mental health issues, they should rely on God, pray about it, and use spiritual and religious practices to reconcile those issues.”

Black and Latino students may be hesitant to see a school counselor and open up about internal or home issues, Johnson said, adding that addressing the stigma of students and their families is critical.

“This cultural and religious dynamic is important that I think we often overlook, but adds more to this conversation about access to mental health and the actual use of these available resources,” he said.

Weber said underfunded school districts have a harder time getting the staff needed to provide students with the mental health resources they need.

“When you have an underfunded school, you have fewer music teachers, art teachers, gym teachers, nurses, science teachers,” Weber told a virtual press conference. Wednesday. “There is no reason to believe that this is not the case for school guidance counselors.”

He added that policymakers should focus on adequately funding school districts such as Newark.

“This is a problem that’s been going on for a decade and a half, and if we have a long-term problem, we need to have a long-term solution,” Weber said. “While having federal funds is very helpful, we cannot rely on them to be the only solution to this problem.”

Catherine Carrera is Chalkbeat Newark’s office manager, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Katherine at [email protected].