Labor Voices: Student mental health should be a top concern for lawmakers

There is a mental health crisis enveloping our schools across Michigan, and it’s going to take state leaders working together with parents and educators to secure a brighter future for our students — before it’s too late.

According to a 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health, 16.5% of children 17 or under have a mental illness. The NIH conducted that study prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has torn through our communities, taking the lives of nearly 35,000 Michiganders — many of them our children’s parents, grandparents, educators and classmates — while causing two years of chaos, uncertainly and social isolation.

It’s safe to assume that if a similar study were to be conducted today, the percentage of Michigan children struggling with mental illness would be considerably higher.

Indeed, educators serving children from all walks of life are seeing a major uptick in student behaviors.

The Michigan Education Association commissioned a survey of nearly 2,600 teachers, school support staff and higher education employees in January that found the mental health of students is the second-biggest concern among educators (behind only our state’s severe educator shortage). In all, 98% of educators say they are concerned about student behaviors and mental health in their schools, including 60% who report being “extremely concerned.”

A recent study published by the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics showed up to 60% of children have experienced “distress” during the pandemic, especially signs of anxiety and depression. They’ve had too much screen time, participated in fewer physical activities and maintained less social contact with peers outside of school, the study reported.

Simply put, our students are suffering — and because of an extreme shortage of school-based counselors, social workers and psychologists, most children are unable to get the help they need.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students, yet in Michigan there is only one counselor for every 638 students — the second-worst ratio in the nation. Similarly, while the National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 500 students, Michigan has one for every 1,521 students.

That’s why parents, educators and Michigan’s leading school organizations are urging support for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed preK-12 education budget, which includes a $361 million investment to address mental health in schools — without raising taxes.

The governor’s budget would invest in additional mental health professionals and counselors in schools; provide for universal mental health screenings; open more school-based health clinics; provide additional specialized services for students with severe needs; and greatly expand the TRAILS program, which gives school staff the tools they need to help students manage stress and build healthy relationships.

Whitmer’s proposed education budget also tackles Michigan’s severe shortage in school mental health professionals, adding to the headway made from last year’s bipartisan funding to hire more school counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses. The governor’s budget includes essential resources to attract more college students to these and other education professions, as well as retention bonuses to help keep good educators and mental health professionals on the job and helping our kids succeed.

These are responsible solutions that will help address children’s mental health crisis.

What won’t help? More election-year posturing and partisan rhetoric, designed to drive a wedge between parents and educators and drain essential revenue from our schools when we can least afford it. These divide-and-conquer tactics might make for effective politics, but it’s harming our children.

Instead, our elected officials must work together to adopt the governor’s proposed education budget, so we can properly address the mental health challenges plaguing our schools.

Our kids’ future depends on it.

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6 thoughts on “Labor Voices: Student mental health should be a top concern for lawmakers

  1. Not only do we desperately need more mental health professionals, we need SMALLER class sizes at all levels and TIME to collaborate with our colleagues regarding best practices for helping this unique generation of students to get back on their feet again. Our focus should be and needs to be on the health and welfare of our students. We cannot move forward educationally, socially or emotionally with our students until we acknowledge our shared present circumstances.

  2. While you might have some valid points, more government intervention is not the answer. Flint schools need to be in person as of YESTERDAY!! Not online. The adults needed to quit vilifying children by constantly making them out to be vessels of germs the last two years. The educators needed to quit pushing masks, testing, and quarantines in the name of “safety” from a virus with a 99.97% survival rate for the people involved in schools. Either teach, or leave the profession if you are so scared.
    As an educator I am completely appalled by how my colleagues have reacted to this virus. We needed to look at other countries (and dare I say Florida) to make decisions. Schools needed to be in person with masking as a choice, not a requirement.
    These problems are a making of union pressure and scared faculty, and now you want to pander to the MDHHS (and Whitmer’s) way of throwing money and more government interventions in a problem that YOU created!! Is this another attempt to take away parental rights? It sure seems that way!!
    MEA is a shameful organization that did not serve all of our students well the last two years…don’t pretend to suddenly care now!

  3. Im sorry but as a second generation MEA union member, this mental health crisis was partially caused by Paula and her MEA leadership, YOU advocated for students to be locked out of schools. As a union member I DID NOT AGREE. Yet I was ailenated and censored by my union peers. I was told be numerous people to quit paying dues. I did not because I have a voice and a vote and I belong to the union BUT you do not represent me, and the hostility I face as well as my colleagues is a direct result of the MEA’s leadership along with the NEA. I will continue to yell this at the top of my lungs to every parent group I belong too: stop yelling at teachers, we are pawns, go after School Boards, District Attorneys, administrations, and Union leadership, they were all the key players who caused the damage done to Children. It will always be a stain on our souls.

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