Educators, parents, students, and legislators join CEA social media campaign urging greater mental health supports in schools, improved indoor air quality
Students were facing these issues and a host of others prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the problem has reached crisis proportions, and CEA is urging legislators to act.
“We are at a critical moment, and our students can’t wait,” says CEA President Kate Dias. “Many Connecticut schools don’t have enough school counselors, social workers, or psychologists to meet the growing needs of our students. Caseloads are staggering, students who need trusted professionals at school to talk to are being waitlisted, and unless the legislature acts now and increases the number of mental health professionals in our schools, children will keep falling through the cracks.”
In addition, says Dias, students in schools with HVAC systems that are outdated or not well-maintained are impacted by poor air quality—another hidden threat to their well-being.
To shine a light on the problem, CEA has launched What You Don’t See, a social media campaign where personal—and often heartbreaking—stories illustrate the need to address understaffed schools and sick buildings.
Watch one of the videos from the campaign below—you can watch more at cea.org/whatyoudontsee.
“Every educator, student, and parent has a story to tell about what’s really going on in our classrooms, and this campaign offers everyone an opportunity to shed light on these real and often painful experiences that clearly highlight the fact that we don’t have enough school staff, that we don’t have good ventilation in our schools, that we don’t have what we need to help our children,” says Dias.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness:
- 39,000 Connecticut children suffer from major depression.
- 24,000 are not getting the help they need.
In most Connecticut schools, the average ratios of students to school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists far exceed the recommended maximums. Connecticut has:
- 580 students to 1 school social worker.
- 457 students to 1 school counselor.
- 548 students to 1 school psychologist.
The recommended maximums are:
- 250:1 for school counselors and social workers.
- 500:1 for school psychologists.
“These statistics are alarming, and it’s what our educators are seeing and dealing with every day,” says CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey. “Mental health is not a luxury item. It is not something we can afford to discount or try to economize with staff. This is an investment that pays dividends far beyond the immediate and obvious. Children who have mental health support become adults who are productive, successful members of our society.”
Sharing Personal Stories
Through powerful video interviews with parents, students, school counselors, social workers, and psychologists sharing deeply personal stories of students who were thrown a lifeline and students who fell through the cracks, What You Don’t See paints a picture of what legislators need to know about school resources and how they can help.
- “There are so many students who need support,” says Mansfield school counselor Eileen Melody. “They’re dealing with anxiety, family concerns, homelessness, parents with substance abuse issues, and so much more. It takes time to work with these students, because the issues are so important and very traumatic.”
- “There’s yelling, there’s screaming, there’s climbing on bookshelves, there’s cursing, and we’re seeing all of these overt behaviors at the elementary school level,” says CREC school social worker Jill Soucy. “We spend so much time putting out fires that we don’t have time to be proactive or provide meaningful follow-up.”
- “You would think that our youngest learners don’t really have any problems, but that’s not true,” says New Milford school psychologist Lynn Nissenbaum. “We talk about the invisible backpack, what our students carry with them to school every day: housing insecurity, food insecurity, anxiety, depression, and so much more.”
Cutting and Suicide
2021 Connecticut School Counselor of the Year Curtis Darragh, a middle school counselor in Danbury, says, “It’s a constant carousel of students presenting with mental health challenges. We are seeing children with cutting behaviors. We are doing risk assessments for suicide. We are also seeing students who just need to check in and talk to someone. At any given time, however, I may have five or ten students on my waiting list, and my biggest fear is, ‘Who did I miss?’”
Darragh has expressed concerns that with escalating ratios—his current caseload is 375 students—there is a greater likelihood some students will fall through the cracks.
“I am always worried about that,” he says. “I may be dealing with a number of students experiencing mental health emergencies and wondering about the others who came knocking on my door. Will they be OK?”
Clinton parent Chris Carlisle, whose 17-year-old son died by suicide, has also called for more mental health professionals in schools.
“Nobody knew about Gavin, but if there could have been more help, maybe they could have picked up on something,” Carlisle says. “The caseloads are too much right now for these therapists and counselors, and they can’t do it all. I wish we had more when Gavin was alive.”
The grieving father describes the night his son, a high school senior, stepped out to get supplies for a school project; later, the two planned to work on college applications. That evening, however, Gavin never returned.
An outspoken mental health advocate, State Representative Robin Comey supports CEA’s efforts to pass meaningful legislation to address the growing crisis.
Comey, who represents Branford, says, “I’ve seen what it looks like when a district invests in students’ mental health. There’s a dedicated social worker for every grade, a school psychologist, dedicated family liaisons, a team of school counselors in a school-based health center with clinicians who care about our kids. I look forward to a day when all of our school districts have the mental health resources they need, and this is our opportunity to pass legislation to help our students.”
Mold, toxic air, poor ventilation systems in schools—these are additional hidden risks to children’s health, and another problem CEA is asking legislators to address. Here are some of the stories being shared in the What You Don’t See Campaign:
- “There are times when it’s raining, and my science teacher has to put buckets under the ceiling because the roof leaks,” says Danbury High School student Will Sweeney.
- “Sometimes I go to school and come home with a migraine,” adds Danbury Middle School student Cassidy Hammel. “Some of my classrooms are really hot, and others are really cold.”
- “I don’t want to send my daughter to school to be exposed to any air quality issues that will pose a health risk for her,” says Cassidy’s mother, Vanessa. “When I send her to school, I need to know she’s in a good, healthy environment.”
- “The heat and humidity in our school makes it almost impossible for teachers to teach and students to learn, because they are hot, sweaty, uncomfortable, and not focused on lessons,” says Karen Evans, who teaches in an Old Saybrook school.
- “Legislators need to be made aware of the instructional losses happening in our classrooms because of these conditions,” says Stratford teacher and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kristen Record. “Whether classrooms are too cold or excessively hot, it all impacts students’ health and learning.”
State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has been advocating for improvements to ensure all Connecticut schools have healthy, well-ventilated classrooms. Representing Westport, which has had a serious mold problem in one of its schools, Steinberg understands the health risks facing students and teachers. As chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, he has made the issue a top priority and has voiced his support of CEA’s campaign.
“The pandemic brought the issue to a whole new level that should be addressed this session,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that students have a safe learning environment and teachers have a safe teaching environment.”
On the subject of air quality, Record adds, “I want to remind legislators that Connecticut has laws regulating temperatures in pet stores and animal shelters, but no such laws for our schools. I think we have to do better for our children.”
To learn more about CEA’s What You Don’t See campaign, visit cea.org/whatyoudontsee.