Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

The Role of School Counselors in Meeting Students' Mental Health Needs: Examining Issues of Professional Identity

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

The Role of School Counselors in Meeting Students' Mental Health Needs: Examining Issues of Professional Identity

Article excerpt

The professional identity of school counselors has evolved over time. This article traces the historical context driving this evolution, and suggests it is time for the profession to conjoin the roles of educational leader and mental health professional. This proposal is prompted by heightened awareness of unmet student mental health needs, referrals that go unmet, school counselors displaced by other mental health providers in schools, the potential loss of the unique school counselor role, and the natural link between the mental health professional role and the array of personal-social factors that impact student achievement. A conjoint professional school counselor identity that includes the roles of both educational leader and mental health professional positions school counselors to better respond to all students, including those with mental health needs. This article discusses potential roadblocks and offers suggestions for action.

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Throughout its history, the professional identity of school counselors has been an elusive and fluid construct. The profession has been marked by periodic shifts--and often a lack of clear consensus among its members and stakeholders--about what exactly school counselors should be doing and where their priorities should lie (Culbreth, Scarborough, Banks-Johnson, & Solomon, 2005; Patterson, 1966). In the past decade, however, the advent of the ASCA National Model (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2003, 2012b) has further defined and solidified school counselors' professional identity, linking the work of school counselors to the development of comprehensive school counseling programs that are results oriented and driven by a commitment to providing educational opportunities to all students. In keeping with the ASCA National Model, school counselors are now encouraged to view school counseling as "a crucial educational function that is integral to academic achievement and overall student success," with the objective of helping students overcome barriers to learning (ASCA 2012b, p. xi).

Concurrent with the development and popularization of the ASCA National Model has been a heightened awareness of the large numbers of students in K-12 schools with mental health needs and a growing concern that the needs of these students are not well met by schools (Maag & Katsiyannis, 2010; New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003; Porter, Epp, & Bryant, 2000). It is estimated that one in four children has a diagnosable mental disorder (New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003) that can have a devastating effect on personal and academic development and success. Unfortunately, more than 75% of children in need of mental health services will not receive them (Kataoka, Zhang, & Wells, 2002). For students with a range of mental health diagnoses, whether ADHD, disruptive behavior disorders, or mood disorders, school outcomes are consistently worse compared to students who are not so afflicted (Auger, 2011). Indeed, it has been estimated that over half of students who drop out of school have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder (Vander Stoep, Weiss, Kuo, Cheney, & Cohen, 2003). Moreover, emerging data has suggested that school counselors are often minimally involved in supporting students with mental health needs (Brown, Dahlbeck, & Sparkman-Barnes, 2006). Survey research indicated that most school counselors believe their role includes providing counseling support for students with mental health needs, but they often do not have the time or support necessary to address those needs (Brown et al., 2006).

The ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2012b) provides welcome clarity to the professional identity of school counselors, and its focus on enhancing students' academic achievement has been an important and helpful shift in the identity of school counselors. However, considering the emergence of data regarding the high prevalence of mental health needs among K-12 students and the dismally low proportion of those students who receive proper support for those needs, it may be time to affirm a vision of school counselor identity with an increased focus on meeting the mental health needs of students, and embrace an identity in which school counselors can view themselves as both educational leaders and mental health professionals. …

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