Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Where Can I Find the School Psychologist?The Dearth of Mental Health Support in America's Schools

By Isabelle AboafPublished June 18, 2018

There are far too few psychologists in U.S. schools. That exacerbates student stressors and takes a toll on the mental wellbeing necessary for positive youth and adolescent development.


I can't name my high school psychologist off the top of my head. I can't name a program in my high school geared towards mental health or wellbeing. Part of that missed opportunity came from my own ambivalence, but even if I had sought therapy there is a good chance I might not have received it. That's because my own "comprehensive, suburban, college-preparatory high school," with approximately 22% of students on free or reduced-price lunch, had a ratio of approximately 1350 students per counselor. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of 500-700 students per psychologist.
    To that, I ask, what about a school in an inner city? What about a school where the vast majority of students are on free or reduced-price lunch? In the United States, there are on average 1,383 students per psychologist, far exceeding professional recommendations. States with concentrated poverty in schools fare far worse — New Mexico has on average 3,500 students per school psychologist, and Mississippi has upwards of 5,700 students per school psychologist.
    School psychologists provide valuable services to youth, particularly at-risk youth, including progress monitoring, academic or learning interventions, mental health and behavioral interventions, and crisis preparedness and response expertise. Academic success is facilitated by sound mental health. Stressors in tandem with youth and adolescent development — including, but not limited to, teacher-student relationships, peer-to-peer relationships, turbulent neighborhood life, and family discord — can affect student learning and overall wellbeing. These conditions necessitate accessible, robust psychological health faculty in schools, particularly for families in low-income school districts who may lack the financial resources to otherwise see professional psychologists.
    Opponents of hiring increases might argue that there only exists a need to reduce the psychologist-to-student ratio if there is a demonstrated surplus demand of students in need of therapy services. Yet in an era of disturbingly frequent school shootings, this point is moot. Scholars have found that most youth in need of a mental health evaluation go untreated, especially among Latinos and preschool-age children. Proactive psychological health services are essential to reducing crisis risk in schools and will further the mental health of student populations. Grief therapy (e.g., for students navigating a family member's death), crisis management (e.g., following a student suicide attempt), or pregnancy prevention programs for at-risk youth are among the risk-mitigation services school psychologists can provide.
    If we need to prioritize psychologist hiring, it needs to be done in low-income school districts first or in school districts with identified at-risk populations (historic behavioral issues, for example). Perhaps doing so will raise Americans' trust in school competency regarding student mental health; the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health reports that just 45% of elementary school parents and 32% of middle/high school parents are very confident schools can assist with suspected mental health problems. Of course, the money to address this concern must come from somewhere, and many schools are strapped with budget cuts. I recommend federal and state government grant initiatives to provide funds for school psychologist hires, or a statute entitling children to professional mental health services in schools (in order to create a sense of urgency).
    The strain on school psychologists is unacceptable, and it shows — youth and adolescents aren't receiving the mental health support necessary for academic success or psychological wellbeing. There is no better time than now to address these harmful inadequacies in U.S. schools.