Parents, Educators Press For School Mental Health Funding

Parents, Educators Press For School Mental Health Funding

Board of Education opens first round of public hearings on education spending priorities

| Published:

Montgomery County Board of Education President Shebra Evans speaks during Wednesday night's operating budget forum.

Caitlynn Peetz

The superintendent of Montgomery County schools made room in his proposed fiscal 2020 operating budget for more counselors to improve access to mental health services and promote suicide prevention efforts, but community members say it’s not enough.

Included in Superintendent Jack Smith’s $2.65 billion proposed budget are about 20 new full-time counselor positions and three psychologists, but as mental illness becomes more prevalent nationally, many speakers who testified at a school-sponsored public hearing Wednesday night urged Smith and the school board to consider more funding for mental health programs.

Amy Cannava, a school psychologist, said psychologists oversee an average of two schools each. Psychologists attend all-day meetings up to three times a week and administer various tests and assessments to students, which leaves fewer than 40 full days each school year to deliver psychological services to students, she said.

Cannava requested a psychologist be assigned to each middle and high school and elementary psychologists be assigned to no more than two schools. She suggested the roughly 40 new hires needed to fulfill this goal be made over five years.

Duties of school psychologists and counselors often overlap, but psychologists are more focused on mental health assessment and treatment while counselors often spend much of their time on school-related issues.

Counselor positions at middle and high schools in Montgomery County are staffed on projected enrollment and a student-staff ratio of 250-to-1.

About one in five school-aged children in the United States has a diagnosable mental health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but about 80 percent of those children don’t receive treatment.

Sunil Dasgupta, chairman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Association’s health and safety committee, said he understands the primary purpose of a school system is to educate. However, he said students who are mentally well are more apt to succeed in school. Dasgupta recommended all county school staff members take mental health first-aid courses and integrate mental health awareness into core curriculum.

“We have a crisis in youth mental health and … I’m increasingly finding that our children have to respond to peers who need support,” Dasgupta said. “I ask the board to reconsider the very meager increases in psychologists, counselors and general staff support for students in the proposed budget.”

In conjunction with Montgomery County Public Schools, the county Council of Parent Teacher Associations will host a mental health and wellness forum from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville. The forum features a keynote speech from former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse and several breakout sessions to discuss various topics of mental health and suicide prevention.

This school year, the school system launched a systemwide effort to raise awareness about mental health issues and resources available to students with a month of targeted activities in October.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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