Awareness of mental health conditions and treatments is growing significantly throughout society.
As we continue to learn more about the intricacies of issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and psychosis, we are beginning to realize the significant extent to which childhood well-being is likely to affect our mental states later in life.
What’s more, we are recognizing that signs of mental health conditions can make themselves known at a very early age.
In this article, we explore the vital importance of child mental health support and the key role played by school counselors in ensuring the wellness of young people.
Are mental health conditions common in school-aged children?
There is a huge range of potential contributing factors that can severely impact a young person’s well-being, particularly as they are still developing physically and mentally and learning about society and the world at large.
Many people fail to realize that children can develop complex mental health conditions from a very young age, as it is assumed that their lack of experience with the wider world would result in little opportunity to develop issues of this kind.
However, mental health conditions can stem from a range of possible causes, including genetic or chemical imbalances, abuse, trauma, neglect or loneliness, physical issues and stress.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental, emotional and behavioral disorders affected almost 1 in 5 children as of January 2022, with only 20% receiving specialist care for those conditions.
Why is mental health support particularly important during childhood?
Childhood and adolescence are a delicate time for many when it comes to issues concerning mental health.
Throughout our youth, we undergo a range of experiences that can be tough to process for a still-developing mind. These experiences can have a huge impact on our mental well-being. They include:
- Exam pressure
- Academic or interpersonal competition
- High parental expectations
- Underperformance in academic, social or recreational activities
- The fear of not being listened to or understood due to one’s age
- Trouble at home, including parental separation
- Friendship and relationship issues
- Concerns about one’s physical appearance
- Concerns surrounding one’s sexuality
- First experiences of bereavement
- Chemical changes in the body as the young person enters and navigates puberty
- Being introduced to substance abuse
- Learning about problems with the wider world and developing a sense of powerlessness or anger towards them
- An apparent lack of autonomy
Almost every child will go through one or more of the above. Of course, our time at school represents some of our most formative years and, as a result of a child’s resilience being constantly tested throughout this time, their mental health will potentially be shaped for the rest of their future lives.
The vital role of school counselors
In order to provide support for the well-being of students, and to offer guidance in terms of emotional and behavioral management and the pursuit of healthy interpersonal relationships, many schools appoint one or more counselors.
The importance of this role cannot be overestimated when it comes to the treatment and protection of child mental health.
What does the role of a school counselor involve?
A school counselor may be able to get to the root of a child’s behavioral problems. They can provide a much-needed listening service for young people who don’t know where to turn or who to tell about their worries and concerns.
They may also provide advice and suggest healthy coping mechanisms for young people struggling with stress, loneliness or low self-esteem.
Many school counselors offer group therapy sessions to help young people who are suffering from friendship and relationship issues, provide support and guidance for young people with learning or behavioral differences and develop intervention or prevention programs for students deemed “at risk.”
If they become concerned that a child is showing symptoms of a diagnosable mental health condition, they may also be able to recommend that the child’s family seek treatment from a medical specialist in the field, aiding in early intervention and reducing the negative impact that any condition may have on the child’s future life.
If a counselor suspects that a child is suffering from a mental health condition, they may decide to approach the parents of the child in question in order to educate them on the condition and discuss options for treatment.
Many CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accredited school counselors are able to refer students to relevant medical specialists to seek ways to effectively manage a child’s mental health.
According to GoodTherapy, minors under the age of 18 do not have an automatic right to confidentiality. However, the vast majority of school counselors will work on a confidential basis to ensure that the students who visit them feel confident to open up.
However, counselors are also typically required to break that confidentiality if they are made aware of any issues that may seriously affect the child’s safety or the safety of others.
In some cases, children growing up in a bad home environment are not able to recognize the signs of abuse for themselves.
School counselors are trained to read these signs and sensitively discuss matters of this kind with any student about whom they are concerned in order to help both parties better understand the situation and discuss potential solutions.
This can make a huge difference to a student’s current and future well-being, both in terms of physical safety and of mental health, as it could result in the child’s removal from unsafe or abusive circumstances – which, if left to continue, may have had a more profound effect on them for the rest of their life.
What counselors can do outside of a school setting
A school counselor’s role is not limited to private sessions with students. These specialists can also work to create connections between schools and local resources so that students and their parents can have easy access to mental health support within their community.
They can also give presentations to classes or groups of students or lead special lessons to help young people understand a little more about mental health. This can reduce stigma and teach students how to recognize and manage the signs of certain conditions in themselves and others.
Counselors can provide information to teachers, students and parents about how to support someone they know who is suffering from a mental health disorder and even arrange events that focus on personal well-being.
During finals and other stressful periods, school counselors may introduce drop-in sessions or other resources to help young people relax or deal with their worries in a healthy way.
Of course, these are just a few of the potential activities that a school counselor may undertake.
There is great scope for creativity in a role of this kind, and the precise nature of the role will depend on the educational institution to which they are assigned, the students with whom they work, the wider community and the counselor’s own strengths and approaches.
Why train as a school counselor?
You may wish to become a school counselor because you love working with children. Perhaps you have a particular interest in child development or an understanding of the severity of the country’s current mental health crisis and/or of how certain conditions can be significantly eased by early intervention.
Maybe you simply love the rewarding and inspiring nature of working in an educational setting and wish to help young people enjoy their school experience without having to struggle with the effects of poor mental health.
You or someone you love may have personal experience with a particular condition or mental health services, and, as a result, you may have been inspired to help others who are struggling with their well-being in a similar manner.
Whether you already have a job with young people or not, it’s easy to begin to train as a CACREP-accredited school counselor.
A number of in-person and online master’s degree courses are available for anyone who wishes to become a school counselor. Typical entry requirements include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and a cumulative GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.
Certain courses, such as the School Counseling master’s degree at Walsh University, even offer remote learning options so you can continue to earn or undertake responsibilities such as childcare as you study for your qualification. It’s a win-win!
Programs of this kind offer a highly accessible learning experience for anyone wishing to move into the hugely rewarding field of school counseling.
As a result, graduates of a school counseling master’s degree can make a huge difference to their community and wider society.
With more passionate, creative and informed counselors working in schools and communities across the US every year, our country’s mental health crisis will gradually become easier to tackle – and the negative impact of poor mental health on the student experience will be significantly reduced.