DC school therapists’ jobs at risk as mental health issues rise

DC school therapists' jobs at risk as mental health issues rise

Last spring, Briana D’Accurzio was one of two mental health therapists at a DC school. This year, she is the only one.

It’s not because fewer students in school are suffering from anxiety and depression.

It’s not because fewer students in school are struggling at home or with their peers.

And it’s not because fewer students in school are hurting themselves or contemplating suicide.

“The need is just as great as it was last year,” D’Accurzio told me one recent morning.

America’s youth crisis

She explained that limited resources meant tough decisions had to be made, and one of those decisions involved moving the other therapist to another school in DC. This left D’Accurzio alone to cover a school of nearly 1,600 students.

“If I was able to take all the referrals I get, I would have a workload that is double, triple, quadruple what I have now,” she said. But she can’t take on every case, so she often has to refer students to clinicians outside of school, and that process can mean scrambling and waiting, she said.

The children are not well. They are not well in many places across the country, and they are not well in the district. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to what students have been forced to contend with in recent years on top of the normal challenges of childhood: a pandemic that has snatched loved ones from them and stability, gun violence that robs them of classmates and a sense of safety, and an opioid epidemic that has them considering wearing Narcan in hopes of preventing their peers from overdosing.

Children continue to see adults killed in the nation’s capital. They are also victims.

Therapists, educators and school-based child advocates have seen the struggles of DC students first-hand and they are concerned. Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to some and listened to the testimony of others, and they have expressed a common fear: that the city’s proposed budget could cause schools to lose critical clinicians at a time when vacancies are already vacant.

“I can’t imagine having less,” D’Accurzio said. “We need so much more, so to think of having less is really scary.”

In recent weeks, advocates, educators and students have testified before city lawmakers, pleading with them to add $3.45 million to the proposed budget to sufficiently fund community organizations that place mental health clinicians. in city schools. The request is small compared to the cost of failing these children, but it comes at a time when the city is looking to cut spending.

Schools brace for challenges as single money runs out

“In a year of tough choices, we urge you to continue to prioritize solving the youth mental health crisis,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, in testimony delivered. during a budget hearing on Friday. “Unless there is sufficient funding to allow (community organizations) to continue to offer competitive pay, incentives and professional support to clinicians, the entire program is in jeopardy.”

As evidence of the need, Sandalow cited the results of a 2021 DC Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Some of the data she noted: 28% of middle schoolers have seriously thought about killing themselves, about 12% of middle and high school students took prescription painkillers without a doctor’s prescription, and more than 19% of middle and older students More than 25% of high school students said their mental health was “not good” most of the time or always.

Several students also testified Friday, sharing their own experiences and calling on the city to add the funding to the proposed $19.7 billion budget.

One student described having trouble finding a clinician in southeast Washington. He says he goes to school every day but doesn’t have access to a therapist in the building. He said that when he asked for places to get help outside of school, he was given places away from home. “To me, that’s unacceptable,” he said.

Another student spoke from inside a moving car. The high school sophomore said she started cutting in middle school and at 16 she is still cutting and struggling to control her anger. She described meeting clinicians over the years, but never having enough time to spend with one to open up. “We young people have mental difficulties. We young people are crying out for help,” she said. And there aren’t enough mental health professionals, she said, “to hear our cries.”

One school day, a student sat in D’Accurzio’s desk. The 18-year-old wouldn’t share her name, but she wanted to explain why it’s important for students to have access to therapists in schools.

Students face so much pressure to succeed and the world puts so many issues in front of them that they need a space where they can talk to someone without judgement, the teenager said. She described getting this when she walked into D’Accurzio’s office. The teenager said she often advises friends and family to take care of their mental health needs.

“It shouldn’t be something you should be ashamed of,” she said. “It shouldn’t be something we put aside for later. This should be a number one priority. »

She’s right: the mental health needs of the city’s children deserve priority. DC lawmakers will have to make tough decisions before finalizing the budget, but providing sufficient funding to ensure schools don’t lose clinicians should be a no-brainer.

D’Accurzio works for Mary’s Center, a community organization that has placed clinicians in more than two dozen DC schools. On tough days, D’Accurzio said, she thinks of the students who came into her office with complex needs and made it out of therapy. Some told her, she said, “I didn’t see myself alive at that time.”

“If we didn’t have mental health professionals in schools to meet their needs, I worry what their future would look like,” she said. If schools lose clinicians, she added, it “would be detrimental to the whole community. This would be detrimental to the students we serve. It would be detrimental to their families. »

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