As student mental health needs leap, Minn. schools seek a next generation of counselors

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School counselors and psychologists have been in short supply throughout Jen Voge’s 25-year career, but she says the need seems greater now than ever.

Student mental health problems have become chronic in the COVID-19 era, with school disruptions and family illnesses taking a toll. It’s not possible to reach all the kids who need help.

At Bemidji High School, Voge handles a caseload of 600 students — more than twice the recommended ratio but about average for Minnesota.

“Just this morning, I had two students, they were tearful, knocking on the door trying to get in that we had to turn away. That’s a daily occurrence,” Voge said recently. “Kids are saying, ‘Hey, help me, I’m anxious. I’m crying in class, I don’t know what to do. I need to talk about this.’ And we don’t have the resources to talk to them.”

Hoping to ease some of those pressures, the Bemidji school district and 17 others across Minnesota and North Dakota are working with Minnesota State University Moorhead to get more counselors and psychologists in schools. Those involved in the effort say it’s showing promise.

With a five-year, nearly $7 million federal grant, the university began recruiting, hoping to get 26 candidates in the first year; 42 signed up. So far this year, it’s placed 20 counseling students in 17 schools across 13 districts.

“We’re meeting a need for communities and students in the schools, and we’re also supporting the teachers and administrators that are exhausted and burnt out,” said MSUM professor Lisa Stewart. “We want to keep our schools and our communities healthy. And I truly think that this grant is directly addressing that need.”

‘Who you gonna save?’

That need is enormous.

Interviews with Voge and other Minnesota school counselors paint a picture of adults forced into a triage system as they struggle to help kids. Every day, student needs range from those who need support to be successful academically, to those who are in crisis.

Sara Godding and Kim Goodwin look at a laptop in an office.
Sara Godding (left), a former teacher who is pursuing a master’s degree in school psychology, talks with Kim Goodwin, Bemidji district school principal. (Dan Gunderson / MPR News)

“We daily have to choose who we’re going to help,” said Sara Godding, who returned to college to become a school psychologist after 24 years as an elementary school teacher. “It’s an agonizing choice to pick somebody over another. Who you gonna save?”

Nationally, 4 in 10 students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2021 survey, nearly 1 in 3 experienced poor mental health.

Those national numbers mirror what state leaders saw in last year’s Minnesota student survey. Nearly a third of Minnesota students indicated they were struggling with long-term mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

That’s up from 18% in 2016 and higher than at any other time in the history of the survey, which began in 1989.

“I don’t care if you’re a kindergartner or a 20-year-old coming back to get your diploma, it’s really hard to focus if your demons are pretty big,” said Kim Goodwin, a veteran principal in the Bemidji district who also oversees the Bemidji Alternative Education Center.

“We keep thinking they can just do it, right? Just sit in class and do it, and we know that’s setting them up to fail,” she said.

School officials say there hasn’t been adequate funding to hire mental health providers, and there aren’t enough people choosing the profession. One southwestern Minnesota school reported having an open school psychologist position for seven years with no applicants.

Seeing that need in the classroom led Godding to become a school psychologist. She works now with Goodwin at Solway Elementary.

“I chose to go into this field for that reason,” she said. “Somebody’s got to do this, somebody’s got to help.”

Teddy Murray feels the same way. He was working in the Indian Education Program at Bemidji when Jen Voge convinced him to pursue a counseling degree at MSUM.

Murray made the decision because helping students was rewarding, despite the challenges.

“I understand the stressors and stuff that come with it,” he said. “I grew up on the reservation, I’m enrolled in White Earth Nation, so I grew up with a lot of friends having trauma.”

The U.S. Department of Education grant is targeted toward filling mental health professional vacancies and increasing diversity, recruitment, training, and placement of graduate students in rural and tribal schools.

The grant pays up to 70% of tuition for students in a master’s degree program.

Students work in schools under the supervision of experienced professionals hired specifically for the project while pursuing a degree and they agree to spend from two to four years after graduation working in a high-needs school.

The tuition grant removes a worry about the cost of school, said Murray, and having classes online means he doesn’t need to leave the community where he has roots.

‘A little story for each one’

The tuition assistance and the online classes are a big draw, especially for older students looking to switch careers and stay in their communities. More midcareer adults are entering the master’s program for counseling, said Moorhead assistant professor Taryn Akgul.

“We’re seeing it more than we have in previous years — educators that are being identified by the school or an administrator, that ‘You would be a really good fit for this,’ ” said Akgul. “Or maybe they’ve had an interest in school counseling, wanting to go back and be the school counselor at their school. We’re seeing more of that.”

Goodwin, also principal at Solway Elementary, is thrilled to see experienced educators enter the mental health profession. After 39 years in education, she feels strongly about the link between mental health support and academic success.

More help is in the offing. The Minnesota Legislature approved $64 million in funding to hire school support staff, including mental health professionals, starting next year.

For counselors like Voge, reinforcements can’t come soon enough. She’s had to grow a thicker skin over the past few years to cope with the rising, sometimes overwhelming demand from students for help.

“I’m a very sensitive person by nature,” she said. “So it has taken a toll. But I’ve learned to survive because this is what I love doing.”

Despite the stress, Voge calls it a “wonderful career.” The bulletin board in her office is lined with dozens of photos — all students she helped over her 25-year career.

“And I have a little story for each one,” she said. “And I look at that throughout the day when I’m feeling frustrated. And I remember, that’s why we’re here.”

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