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Amid counselor shortage, rural schools are training students to help

Students sit in desks a classroom, looking toward a teacher in front of a whiteboard. The photo captures the backs of the students' heads.
Taylor Flowe
Rural schools across Ohio are looking at bridging mental health needs in a new way.

There aren’t enough mental health counselors in Ohio schools.

For every one school counselor in the state, there’s around 400 students, according to the American School Counselors Association. That far exceeds the recommended ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor.

The deficit has led rural school districts across Ohio to train its students to identify mental health issues.

“It is a big struggle in the rural communities to get just the basic mental health resources and mental health counseling that these youth need to support them on a regular basis,” said Ohio State University Extension behavioral health field specialist Bridget Britton.

By teaching teens mental health first aid, it can bolster the support system available to students in rural areas.

How does it work?

Britton brings curriculum by the National Council of Wellbeing to students in the 10th through 12th grades. She said the training takes classrooms through the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Students use the six hour sessions to talk about the stressors that are impacting students’ lives today, said Britton.

“We walk them through the pressures of social media, the pressure of doing things alone, of bullying,” she said.

“It is a big struggle in the rural communities to get just the basic mental health resources and mental health counseling that these youth need to support them on a regular basis."
Bridget Britton, behavioral health field specialist at OSU Extension

The training also focuses on where students can direct their peers for help if they see those warning signs. Britton said they help students identify trusted adults in the school – beyond just a school counselor – that can support them in a time of crisis.

“Our youth want to open up to us and they want to open up to each other,” Britton said. “This training is a way for our youth to get help in a new and unique way since there is a gap in the mental health community when it comes to treatment.”

Teacher support

Britton said the program always guides students to share their concerns with adults.

That’s why it’s important to ensure school faculty are also equipped to field student concerns. She said many teachers don’t feel equipped to handle the influx of mental health concerns from their classrooms. The peer support program is offered alongside training for faculty who want to be better prepared to navigate conversations around mental health.

“So that we can prevent the mental health challenges before they become worse, so that they can get the help they need before it becomes a crisis situation,” Britton said.

The impact of the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic hurt Ohio students' mental health. In a 2021 Miami University assessment of student needs, 75% of participating schools reported increased concern around student anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Britton said rural districts are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have. On the bright side, she said the pandemic has led to more grants being available to rural areas to address the issue.

“They're seeking out grants they never had before, money that they never had, to hire school social workers … and to be able to fund for people to come in and teach trainings like this,” Britton said.

Britton said she believes it’s a worthwhile investment – especially since many times there are limited mental health care offerings in the wider community as well.

She said rural schools will need to use every resource available to recover.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.