The counseling office is a constant hub of activity. All five counselors have a table used as a waiting room filled with drop-form-toting students, kids with parents’ notes requesting schedule changes; seniors begging for late arrival. But where are the kids who need counseling? Counselors are supposed to be a support system for struggling students in the allegedly safe space that is school. However, counselors cannot be available to help students with their emotional needs if they are swamped with administrative tasks such as schedule changes, test planning and lunch duty. In light of recent school shootings, walkouts and students generally feeling unsafe at school, counselor’s emotional duties are more important than ever.
With all these tasks, counselors become an integral part of the school system, yet their collegiate training does not prepare them to fill the role that is forced upon them. Counselors must go through a masters program at college in order to be eligible for their job. However, most of those years of schooling are spent learning about brain theories focused on how kids think, such as certain ways to comfort a student who is grieving. While these are certainly helpful, the duties that counselors spend the most time on are schedule changes and event coordination—neither of which get covered in their classes about the human mind. Counselors exist to be an aid in the emotional hardships of being a teenager, but instead of being allowed to provide the service they have trained for, they are bogged down by leftover jobs like organizing AP tests.
Once a year, an official representing the counseling departments for Parkway must go to the board and fight for the existence of the counseling system. Over the years, this argument has been fortified by evidence that counselors are needed not only for actual counseling purposes but to make schedules, to coordinate events, to help students find scholarships and oversee the AP and ACT testing. With all that added responsibility, any opposition to the counseling department disappears. But so does any time that the counselors could use to talk to struggling students, despite that being their true purpose.
And unfortunately, the emotional issues of students are more plentiful than ever; counselors estimate that this has been their busiest year on record in terms of students coming to them for help. It’s no secret that many students struggle with things like depression and anxiety, but many may not know the magnitude of it all. Experts suggest that anxiety, depression and self-harm have been on the rise since 2012. In 2015 6.3 million teenagers were diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in the United States (that’s 25 percent of teenagers), while two million suffer from depression that impaired their daily function. That’s only the students that report it; the same study showed that only 20 percent of students with depression seek help. In one month at the counseling office last semester, at any given time, a counselor recalls there would be a student in every single counselor’s office to discuss emotional issues, and more would be waiting. There were so many students that they were being sent to the assistant principals’ offices so that someone could see them while the counselors were overbooked. Counselors are supposed to be there to help students with this, they’ve been trained for it for a reason, and instead, they’re making schedules and organizing AP testing and struggling to fit students in need into their already hectic schedules.
Due to the massive influx of struggling students, Parkway has taken some action by taking on an emotional therapist, Katie Corbin. Corbin works in affiliation with Catholic Family Services (CFS) and is in the counselor’s office three days out of the week. Unfortunately, students cannot plan their emotional breakdowns for those three days. Corbin has many other obligations through CFS, as West is not her only employer. Corbin’s presence is a start, but the fact is that West needs more people like her with more hours. One person is not capable of taking on a full high school of teenagers.
The solution is simple. The counselors are well equipped for their job, but they just need more time. While we cannot extend the hours in a day for counselors to work, we can add counselors to the department, and thus lighten their workloads. However, some counselors feel that Parkway is not as enticed to hire new counselors as they are to hire new math teachers or science teachers, because those hires can arguably raise test scores. But in order to combat the rising mental health epidemic, student support systems like counseling must be prioritized. If Parkway devoted even some of the funds they’re putting towards things like the science labs and ACT testing to hiring another counselor or redirecting administrative work so counselors were freed up, students might finally have sufficient access to resources that help them emotionally. Hiring that new math teacher may make test scores rise, but Parkway needs to move to increase the counseling department’s staff quickly if they have any hope of all students developing into capable and confident learners.