Senator Merkley, Congresswoman Clark Introduce Legislation to Put Mental Health Care in Reach for Every Student in America

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Immediately following National Suicide Prevention Week, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA-5) today introduced the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, bicameral legislation that would help fill the critical unmet need for school-based mental health services providers in elementary and secondary schools across America.

“Mental health care is essential health care, full stop. But as I meet with educators from across Oregon, one of the top concerns I hear is that our schools aren’t receiving the funding they need to deliver the counseling services students deserve,” said Merkley. “That’s unacceptable, and it’s putting the lives of our children at risk. Now is the time for Congress to commit to ensuring that every child in America has access to quality mental health care.”

“We know that for kids to succeed, schools can’t just be about test scores,” said Clark. “We must invest directly in school nurses, social workers, and counselors who are central to promoting the long-term health and welfare of our children. School should be a place where all kids feel safe and supported.”

The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor, but currently the national average is 455 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 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. 

In addition to Merkley, the legislation is cosponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Angus King (I-ME), Doug Jones (D-AL), Robert Casey (D-PA), and Chris Coons (D-DE).

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

A summary of the bill is available here.