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

Washington, D.C. – During Mental Health Awareness Month, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Democratic Whip Katherine Clark (MA-05) announced the reintroduction of the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, legislation that would greatly boost the availability of mental health providers in America’s public schools. Mental illness affects 20% of American youth. This bicameral legislation will put additional mental health providers in elementary and secondary schools across America. 

“Mental health care is essential health care. But as I meet with educators and students from across Oregon and hear from parents during town halls, one of their top concerns is that our schools aren’t receiving the funding they need to deliver the counseling services students deserve,” said Senator 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.” 

“Test scores are only one measure of student success. If we want to ensure our kids can truly thrive, we must provide them with the support of trained mental health professionals on their school campuses. We know that social workers and counselors are central to promoting our kids’ long-term health and welfare,” said Whip Clark. “The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act will increase mental health providers in our schools and ensure our kids can feel safe and secure.”

The recommended maximum student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor, but currently, the national average is 385 students per counselor and continues to rise. For school psychologists, the recommended maximum ratio is 500 students per provider, and 250 to 1 for school social workers. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would establish five-year renewable grant programs to help elementary and secondary schools to hire additional school-based mental health providers such as counselors, psychologists, and social workers, ensuring students can receive the mental health care and support they need to achieve their full potential. 

Students are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health than community mental health centers, but school districts across America too often lack the resources to provide students with the in-school treatment and care they need and deserve. Furthermore, schools that employ more school-based health providers see improved attendance rates, academic achievement and career preparation, and graduation rates, and lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. 

The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Mental Health Counselors Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, Anxiety & Depression Association of America, Girls Inc., International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Council for Mental Wellbeing, National Federation of Families, Postpartum Support International, School Social Work Association of America, and Western Youth Services.

“Students’ mental health and well-being are essential to achieving positive academic and social/emotional outcomes, and to planning for life after school,” said American School Counselor Association Executive Director Jill Cook, CAE. “The current school counselor staffing ratios are inadequate across the country. This legislation would increase access to school counseling programs to meet the needs of each and every student.”

“As students and schools continue to grapple with the youth mental health crisis, it is vital that we increase schools’ capacity to provide comprehensive mental and behavioral health services and meet students where they are. Unfortunately, the shortage of school-based mental health professionals leaves many students and families without access to prevention, early identification, and intervention services. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act seeks to address the lack of access to school-based services by helping high needs districts hire the personnel needed to meet recommended staffing ratios, including having one school psychologist for every 500 students. This legislation will help us achieve the goal of every student having access to the mental, social, emotional, and academic supports they need in school,” said Dr. Andrea Clyne, National Association of School Psychologists President.

“During this mental health crisis, our children need all the support and guidance we can give them to navigate the academic and emotional obstacles they face,” said National Association of Secondary School Principals CEO Ronn Nozoe. “School-based mental health professionals build meaningful relationships with students, providing a caring ear, wise advice, and life-changing mentorship to millions of students. Yet many schools lack sufficient mental health staff, leaving countless young people to fend for themselves. The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would ensure that no child has to struggle alone by providing needed funds to hire more professional school counselors, psychologists, and social workers. I want to thank Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) for his leadership on this bill.”

In addition to Merkley and Clark, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Laphonza Butler (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Fetterman (D-PA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Chris Van Hollen (D-MN), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA-36), Jahana Hayes (D-CT-05), Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14), and Linda T. Sánchez (D-CA-38).

“The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act addresses the critical shortage of mental health counselors in public schools across our nation,” said Rep. Lieu. “The social and emotional support of a school counselor can make a real difference in a student’s ability to thrive and succeed in school. It is time that we provide public schools with the resources they need to hire additional counselors so our students can feel safe and supported as they learn and grow.”

“Supporting children in school also means providing resources to support their social and emotional needs. Schools are in desperate need of more mental health providers to ensure we are immediately addressing students in need,” said Rep. Hayes. “The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act will help fill vacant school-based mental health provider roles so all students can have access to resources that promote their mental wellbeing and educational success.”

“Having access to high quality mental health resources and a strong support system at school is so important to the health and wellbeing of our young people,” said Rep. Underwood. “The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act will make sure schools have the resources they need to properly support our kids and help them thrive.”

“Preparing students for the future is about more than just their academic development, it’s also about helping them develop socially and emotionally,” said Rep. Sánchez. “Unfortunately, there is a shortage of school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers to help students progress. Our bill will close that gap, giving more students access to counseling and mental health support.”

A copy of the bill can be found here