Merkley, Clark Announce New Legislation to Put Mental Health Counselors in Every K-12 Public School in America

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Marking National Suicide Prevention Week, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-05) today announced the introduction of the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, new bicameral legislation that would help fill the critical unmet need for school-based mental health services providers in elementary and secondary schools in America.

In addition to Merkley, the legislation was cosponsored in the Senate by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Senator Angus King (I-ME).

“Mental health care is essential health care, full stop. But right now in our schools, we’re treating it like an optional afterthought,” said Senator Merkley. “That’s unacceptable, and it puts our students’ lives at risk. This National Suicide Prevention Week, let’s commit to ensuring that every child in America has access to the mental health care they need.”

“We know that for kids to succeed, schools can’t just be about test scores,” said Congresswoman Clark. “We must invest directly in school nurses, social workers, and counselors who are central to fostering safe schools and promoting the long-term health and welfare of young adults.”

The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor, but currently the national average is 482 students per counselor and this average continues to rise. For school psychologists the recommended ratio is 500 to 700 students per provider and 250 to 1 for school social workers.

This disparity between students’ need and available resources can have critical consequences for young Americans. Mental illness affects 20 percent of American youth. Approximately half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and more than a third of students 14 and older with mental illness drop out of school. Fully 90 percent of youth who die by suicide had a mental illness.

Youth with access to mental health service providers in their school are 10 times more likely to seek care than youth without access, but school districts across America lack the investment and resources to provide students with the in-school treatment and care they need. Young people often find themselves waiting months for mental health treatment—an unacceptable delay, particularly at a vulnerable stage of life.

The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would tackle this crisis head-on by finally providing the necessary resources for schools to provide the mental health counselors their students need and rely on. Specifically, it would establish grants to states to help ensure that every school can meet the recommended counselor-to-student ratios. 

The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act is endorsed by the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the School Social Work Association of America, the American School Counselor Association, and the American Psychological Association.