Fairfax County schools could face shortage of mental-health clinicians

A multimillion-dollar budget crunch in Fairfax County schools next year might force an unsustainable workload on the mental-health clinicians who help students cope with stress, anxiety and emotional crises, administrators said.

The December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — and other recent high-profile attacks involving shooters with mental illnesses — renewed public focus on mental health and started a national conversation about the role of school psychologists and social workers in students’ lives. This year, several bills were introduced in Congress addressing a shortage of mental-health professionals in schools.

Fairfax County could face a similar shortage, school officials said, if additional funding is not included in next year’s budget to hire more mental-health professionals.

“It’s a challenge to meet all the needs of our kids,” said Amy Parmentier, coordinator of social-work services in Fairfax schools. “Newtown has certainly tragically punctuated it. There’s more to educating children than just academics.”

This year, the ratio in Fairfax schools is one psychologist and one social worker per 2,200 ­general-education students. Most high schools, which average between 2,400 and 2,700 students, have only one school psychologist and one social worker.

Fairfax staffing levels are far below national standards. The National Association for School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist per 500 students. The School Social Workers Association of America recommends one social worker with a master’s degree per 400 students.

The ratio in Fairfax worsened during the recession, when the school system eliminated social worker and psychologist positions to save money while student enrollment continued to balloon.

“I would never say we have enough” mental-health professionals, said Dede Bailer, who coordinates psychology services for the Fairfax schools. “It would be wonderful if we had additional staffing. But we don’t have the same number of positions that we had 10 years ago, and since then our population has increased.”

Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services, said that social workers and psychologists can be the first line of defense in schools, helping to do proactive screenings to address students’ issues before they are manifested in bigger problems. But since most clinicians have such a high workload, they are often acting more like a last resort, attending to students who are in crisis. Crucial prevention work rarely happens, clinicians said.

Clinicians said they tackle a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, bullying, substance and alcohol abuse, family deaths and parents’ divorces. Often, the clinicians are the only people students feel they can talk to openly about very personal concerns.

Nikki Simmons, the mother of an 18-year-old former Fairfax student, credits the school system’s clinicians with helping to save her daughter’s life. “They really helped her get out of her bad times,” said Simmons. “It was hell and back.”

Simmons said that funding for more mental-health professionals is crucial and described Fairfax’s clinicians as among the best in the region.

She said her daughter began having mood swings during her freshman year. She started using drugs, drinking alcohol and cutting herself. The girl had thoughts of suicide.

“You’re talking about an honor roll student to D’s and F’s in a matter of months,” Simmons said.

As a sophomore at Woodson High, her daughter met with Fairfax clinicians for about 30 minutes a day. Her dark moods began to lighten.

“She always had someone to go to whenever there was something wrong,” Simmons said.

Fairfax school psychologists said the county’s increase in students directly correlates with an increase in need for mental-health services. In a 2011 survey, almost 30 percent of Fairfax students reported feeling symptoms of depression, and 16 percent said they had considered suicide during the previous year.

Dockery requested more funding for clinicians this year to make up for the lost positions, hoping to add 25 positions to the budgeted total of about 280, an increase of less than 10 percent. She was denied.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale said the School Board had not made mental health a priority during deliberations to craft the $2.5 billion budget.

Facing a $60 million budget shortfall from the county, the school system is under pressure from the Board of Supervisors to make more cuts.

Enrollment is expected to grow again next year, and a proportional number of social workers and school psychologists may not be hired without an amendment to next year’s budget.

In many cases, a clinician oversees hundreds of students at multiple schools.

There are now eight psychologists who are each assigned to cover three schools and 63 who cover two school sites each. Among social workers, there are 18 who each have three schools and 49 who have two schools.

Bailer said that assigning a clinician to multiple schools can lead to gaps in coverage.

“Sometimes kids just come by, and if you’re there and they need to talk, that’s when you can do your best intervention work,” Bailer said. “But if you’re in three schools and you’re not physically there, those conversations won’t happen.”

Dena Neverdon is a Fairfax schools social worker assigned to three schools: Vienna, McNair and Floris elementaries.

“Three schools is challenging,” said Neverdon, who has worked for Fairfax schools since 2003. “In an ideal world, I would only work with one school. If I was there every single day, I could do so much more.”

Mary Ann Panarelli, the system’s director of intervention and prevention services, said that more mental-health staffers are desperately needed.

“We are facing increased challenges to continue to do as well as we have,” Panarelli said. “We are meeting the needs, but at some point, there is a breaking point.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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