School social workers are an essential support for children’s mental health: Read our Op-Ed
January 26, 2023 by Wesner Pierre CEO of Partnership with Children
In New York City, where Black and brown children lost primary caregivers to COVID-19 at about twice the national rate, we are seeing a continuing mental health crisis even as the rest of the country seems to have moved on.
I am the CEO of a nonprofit that provides in-school social workers for 30,000 K-12 students in 67 schools across New York City. I am also an adult whose life was changed in middle school by a licensed clinical social worker. I can attest to the profound benefits of compassionate, trusted mental health experts in public schools.
In her State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul stepped up by pledging to make funding easier for social worker support in children’s schools. Hochul proposed increasing Medicaid payments for school-based satellite clinics and wraparound services, and she backed measures to add and expand school services quickly.
This is welcome news, because schools are a place where these services are sorely needed. The most recent Mental Health America report noted that “students of color disproportionately access their mental health care at school” and observed, “Increasing access to school-based mental health services can promote equity and reduce disparities.”
Here’s a lens through which New Yorkers can imagine this impact: When trauma is a relentless drumbeat in children’s lives, it can turn into the neurological condition known as toxic stress, which blunts their ability to learn, form friendships, or socialize in healthy ways. How can a young person be open to ideas or bear down on their studies when they are hungry? How can they “behave” in class when they are confused and angry about circumstances over which they have little control?
We know that an adult who can usher children through these experiences can be pivotal in their lives. In-school support lifts children who have no say in their circumstances – financial and housing insecurity, lack of medical or dental care, or families who are loving but are simply stretched too thin to get their children the expert mental health care they need.
And it works: A recent survey of our middle- and high school students found that 87 percent have relationships with adults who care about them, cultivating resilience. And 80 percent get the space and support to honestly share what they are feeling and thinking; that’s the basis of agency. Three-quarters of our students said that our work with them supports their academics, helping them stay in school.
Parents and teachers agree: 96 percent of parents said our counseling helps with their children’s social and emotional needs; and 91 percent of teachers said our work makes their classrooms easier to manage.
Unfortunately, in New York City we continue to face a confluence of factors in an uncertain economy: Decreased attendance has led to lower per-pupil funds, while more enrichment and supports are needed to help students address pandemic-related learning loss.
But there is hope in the governor’s proposal. She understands the gravity of what our children and their families are facing. We ask the Legislature to continue to work closely with Gov. Hochul on this critical issue. We cannot let children face the ills of mental health alone.