Public High Schools Need Better Psychological Resources

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readJan 24, 2024

Campbell Lawson (PPS ‘24)

Campbell Lawson (PPS ‘24)

Public high schools across the United States should all have at least one school psychologist available to all students, five days a week.

I was an emotional wreck during my junior and senior years of high school. When I lost a critical student government election during the last week of my junior year, I was devastated. Instead of seeking services at my school’s Wellness Center, I turned to my best friend to help me through the crisis. I knew there was nothing for me in the Wellness Center except a “Zen sand garden” and some stress putty. My high school psychologist was available just one day a week in the Wellness Center because she was solely responsible for counseling the roughly 2,013 students in my school district. Her primary responsibility was working with special education students on their “Individualized Education Plans” or IEPs — overwhelmed or anxious students like myself just weren’t a priority.

Across America, about 32% of high-school aged children suffer from an anxiety disorder. However, 49.4% of adolescents with mental disorders do not receive treatment. The prevalence of psychological services in public high schools is increasing, as an estimated 55% of public high schools now provide diagnostic services to students struggling with their mental health. Yet there is a difference between diagnosing mental disorders and treating them. Diagnosing students allows them to feel as though their emotions are valid, which can be extremely beneficial. The greatest benefit of diagnosing mental illness is that the sufferer can seek appropriate treatment once they have a label for their symptoms. While this increase in diagnostic services is a significant step in the right direction, only 42% of schools reported providing treatment services for their students. Unfortunately, diagnosis is a double-edged sword, as those who have received a diagnosis but don’t have access to treatment often find their symptoms increasing the longer it takes to receive treatment due to fear of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. In fact, 8.4% of public schools report not having psychological services due to their “reluctance to label students with mental health disorders to avoid stigmatizing the child.”

Fear of stigmatizing students isn’t the only thing holding public schools back from providing these critical services. The largest barriers to providing mental health services at public high schools are inadequate funding and inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals, which go hand-in-hand. The median annual salary for a school psychologist is $81,500, nearly $25,000 less than the median salary for a privately-practicing psychologist. Without appropriate funding, public schools cannot competitively pay a licensed psychologist for their services. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends states and school districts implement legislation that creates stipends for psychologists who meet the National Certification of School Psychologists standards. Doing so would make the compensation process for school psychologists in parity with that of nationally certified teachers and administrators, who receive stipends to incentivize them to teach at public schools.

I wholeheartedly agree with the NASP’s recommendation — good school psychologists are critical to supporting students as they cope with emotionally challenging times. Creating stipends to supplement credentialed psychologists’ pay would attract more psychologists to work at schools and would increase representation of school psychologists in areas that are often treatment “deserts,” such as rural areas.

Some argue that treating mental disorders is not the responsibility of the schools. Treatment of mental disorders in adolescents is highly specialized, and many believe that specialized treatment is better provided in private practice. However, many public-school students across America cannot afford private psychological treatment. Giving students access to psychological resources at school can save their lives.

Students’ mental health has worsened in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating any symptoms students already had and causing symptoms to appear in students who previously had none. The Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Study found that, during 2021, 44% of participants (in grades 9–12) experienced feelings of hopelessness, 19.9% seriously considered suicide, and 9% actually attempted suicide. School psychological resources are critical to helping this current generation of high school students grow and thrive after a long period of confusion and isolation.

The post-pandemic world has the opportunity to define a new “normal.” That definition should include provisions for psychological resources to help students recover from a multi-year period of social isolation where they may not have seen their best friend’s smile or hugged their grandma.

Public high school students deserve quality psychological care. It’s as simple as that.

Campbell Lawson is from Piedmont, CA and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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