Campbell County Public Schools licensed professional counselor Nicole Chalmers spends her days working one-on-one with students at Cornerstone Learning Center to address mental health needs and improve students’ behaviors to ensure success in school.
“I don’t think that any of our kids traditionally wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to go to school and not learn,’ ‘I want to go to school and have behavior problems.’ They don’t say that, but we have to listen to their behavior and figure out what’s the best way we can address the behavior,” Chalmers said.
It is Chalmers — the only licensed professional counselor within the 8,000-student division focused solely on mental health needs — who gets called in to assist during crises and conducts an increasing number of suicide and threat assessments.
Unlike Chalmers, school counselors focus on the academic and career development and the social and emotional aspects of a student. School psychologists evaluate students for learning, social and emotional disabilities.
Significantly outnumbered, these experts said they are seeing an increase in students dealing with depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loss and chronic stress and trauma, and these issues are popping up at younger ages. They manifest as classroom outbursts, inability to focus in the classroom and other ways.
Approximately one in five children between the ages of 13 and 18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life, and half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental health organization dedicated to “building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”
Growing mental health needs are not just an issue Campbell County Public Schools face — divisions across the state struggle to address the needs as well, said Karen Carlson, CCPS counselor supervisor of secondary schools and a school counselor who also is the president of the Virginia Alliance for School Counseling.
“There’s not something wrong with Campbell County. There’s not something wrong with Campbell County kids. There’s something going on that’s systemic that’s impacting our youth, and we’re seeing it all over,” Carlson said.
The 13-school division, with one technical and one learning center, employs a school counselor at each elementary school, two counselors at each middle school and combined school and three counselors at each high school.
Over the years, counselors’ jobs have shifted from concentrating on academics to addressing a student as a whole.
“It just seems like most of our day is spent working with students on some kind of mental health-related issue, and sometimes it’s very serious. We have crisis intervention. That’s a big part of what we do. That’s just a very real part of our job,” Carlson said.
School Counselor Association best practices said a counselor should serve 250 students, but Carlson alone has a caseload of 338 students. Supervisors like Carlson carry smaller caseloads than the counselors and psychologists they oversee, due to their additional responsibilies.
With students walking in the door with numerous different problems, counselors have to be prepared for whatever crisis might come up, and many days, counselors aren’t able to see everyone.
“What keeps us up at night is worrying about the students that we didn’t get to or the students we didn’t know to call in — that’s very real,” Carlson said.
With only one psychologist for every 2,000 students, CCPS school psychologist Debi Cheek said it’s difficult knowing there are great needs from students, but they can’t be as involved at the “grassroots level.” The National Association of School Psychologists recommends divisions have one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students.
“I think we feel like if we could be more involved in those prevention and intervention stages, then maybe children may not get to the point where they require special education,” Cheek said.
Tina Cruz serves as the student services specialist for the division, providing different resources for families and advocating with the parent for what a student needs in school. She also focuses on understanding the underlying cause of behaviors rather than focusing on the actions themselves.
CCPS uses outside agencies such as Harvest Outreach Center and Horizon Behavioral Health to support students.
Harvest provides programs for about 100 Campbell County students from five different schools and has 10 counselors based at Cornerstone Learning Center, a significant increase from past years.
The conversations that have begun around addressing students’ mental health needs are a good start, the counselor said.
Chalmers, Cruz, Carlson, Cheek, Harvest Program Director Maria Wood and CCPS elementary school counselor Stephanie Moehlenkamp gave a presentation to the Campbell County School Board in April about their concerns and the growing needs. Superintendent Robert Johnson said the division decided to focus on providing school resource officers in this year’s budget, but the board can look into providing more counselors and psychologists in next year’s budget.
Carlson said the division continues to provide several professional development opportunities.
As counselors and psychologists constantly are hearing heartbreaking stories, many of the counselors said self care is vital to the success of their jobs.
“There’s definitely times when you bring that emotional baggage home with you because we’re in this business because we care about children, and we want them to be successful,” Cheek said.
With some counselors and psychologists being the only mental health professional in the building, they can “sometimes feel like an island,” CCPS elementary school counselor Moehlenkamp said. Many of the counselors turn to each other, other staff members in the division or family members for support.
Many counselors said they are grateful for the support system within the division.
“I am elated that I can work in a school system that understands our children, that understands that there are many layers to mental health and that affords someone like me the opportunity to come in and provide that one-on-one support,” Chalmers said.
At the end of the day, counselors and psychologists find it rewarding to be able to be there for students when they need someone most.
“There has never been a point where I said I don’t like my job — as busy, overwhelming, devastating as some of the things that happen in a day, that make you want to crawl up in a ball and cry, and that’s happened — even then, it’s not about me,” Carlson said. “It’s knowing that someone was there when someone needed someone and how powerful that relationship can be.”
Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.