AEFP 45th Annual Conference

Toward a Meaningful Impact through Research, Policy & Practice

March 19-21, 2020

Florida K-12 Public School Counselor Perceptions of Their Role in Student Mental Health Support

Lindsey Page, Florida State University,

Increasingly, American youth are exhibiting signs of atypical mental health development, with an estimated 20% of youth between the ages of 13-18 living with a mental illness. These youth attending school may be at risk for developing more severe mental health issues if left untreated. School counselors, now identified as school mental health support personnel in Florida State Board Rule as of July 2019, are in a unique position to provide preventative as well as responsive services to students facing mental health issues. Mental health issues affect student grades, attendance, proclivity to risky behaviors, and likelihood to practice self-medication. Not all students have access to private or community based mental health services to offset these risk factors. Often, barriers to private and community-based healthcare include transportation issues, medical insurance complications, lack of providers, long wait times to receive services, and parental agreement with the youth receiving treatment. For these reasons, school-based mental health interventions may be a more accessible student support system .
Several known problems, however, currently exist that prevent school counselors from being this student support resource. Firstly, school counselors are limited in the time they have available to work with students due to the overwhelming amount of administrative and clerical tasks they are responsible for completing such as 504 plans, test administration, eliciting bullying statements from students, collecting and distributing clothes and food for student needs, and attendance discipline or monitoring. Another issue that often arises is that many school counselors request further mental health training than what was provided in their graduate programs. Lack of training, or the distance of time between when the training occurred and was practiced, often leads to lack of confidence in counseling intervention implementation. Furthermore, school counselors may feel disempowered to advocate for such clerical and non-counseling duties to be removed from their role for various reasons.
The purpose of this study is to determine school counselor perceptions of their role in mental health services in a medium-sized suburban/rural public school district in Florida. If school counselors are able to change the services they provide to include more mental health support, then there is more job security for school counselors, and their role will be more relevant to the population they serve, as data is showing the mental health needs of students are only increasing. This could also be significant to counselor job satisfaction as a change in role may cause some counselors to leave the profession or for some to have a renewed sense of purpose and an excitement to learn new skills. This change in the role of the school counselor could also impact other district staff such as the social workers, school psychologists and district mental health counselors in that the properly qualified people to see students with more pronounced mental health needs may be able to see those students rather than all students with a spectrum of needs. School counselor perceptions of their role in student mental health services will help to refine school counselor advocacy advisement, create a more common role with counseling duties in the primary place of importance, and lead to more attuned school counseling professional development provision.


This is nice work. It reminded me of Harvard's Christine Mulhern, whose recent job market paper suggests that counselors play an important role in affecting high school students' outcomes, but not through impacts on cognitive skills. It may be that this mental health route is one potentially important explanation. You might be interested in her work, here:

Hi Joshua, Thank you, this is a topic close to my heart as I am a former school counselor and currently provide support to all high school counselors in my district from the central office. I have not come across Christine's work previously so I do look forward to learning more about it. Thank you for sharing this relevant resource!

Given the nature of your sample, I expect that a number of the counselors will have completed their graduate work in the same program(s). Exploring program commonalities, and linking that to information on the programs, could suggest potential steps programs could take toke to strengthen counselors' feelings of preparedness. Also, you might be able to identify characteristics of programs that arec more likely to produce counselors who feel prepared to support students.

Hi Tom, Thank you so much for your comment. You are correct, many of the counselors did graduate from the same programs, but often in different years when the program requirements were different. I do see your point though on collecting information, even if in a more generalized form, about the program components to support the information that is perhaps lacking in their preparation or program components that boost their levels of preparation. Thank you for the suggestion!

Definitely an important and timely topic, given current events (but also timeless, given strains on counselors in the best of times). When you ask them about additional training that they think would be useful, are you thinking primarily of extra training they wish they had had in graduate school (backward projecting), or professional development that they wish were offered to them currently as well? Looking forward to seeing how you develop this work.

Hi Cassie, thank you so much for your comments. I am hoping to gain information from both directions, having them reflect on what they would have liked more of in graduate school, but primarily focusing on what would help them now given their understanding of the environment they work in. I am hoping that this information will be useful to simply understand what counselors need more of or what works, and then that information can be shared with counselor preparation programs and school districts for better professional development. Thank you for the question!

Regarding your question, "What additional training, if any, do school counselors perceive would be beneficial to them in providing student mental health support?" I would be interested in knowing how those perceptions are different for more and less experienced counselors and for younger and older counselors, which (might be tough to separately disentangle). My guess is that such perceptions of training needs change as one has more experience and gets to know what student mental health issues are most pressing . Further, I would guess that younger counselors, raised in earlier times, have different perceptions of some issues such as sexual identity and mental health.

Hi Mark, you make a good point. In my questionnaire and interviews, I plan to ask counselors how many years they have been in the profession as I agree that experience could influence their responses. I am hoping to code the years of experience into variables that I can use both quantitative and qualitative methods to look for trends in responses of certain groups. I had not thought about collecting counselor ages, however, I do see what you mean because there could still be variances with a person's experience due to age in a graduate program. Thank you for the things to consider!

Lindsay, you have some great feedback above and you have a clarity here that gets at the essence of what you want. In many respects the comments above also reflect some of what we touched on and might be good talking points for our next conversation. On your second research question, some word smithing might make it clearer - e.g., what areas or types of training to they feel they need. It is about perceptions about what might be beneficial, but I think you can effectively ask them to reflect on what they need and see how that cuts across the counselors. Also, you note that data to answer Q2 will come from the interviews, why not the surveys as well in terms of open-ended or even non-opened-ended responses to the survey.

Thank you Dr. Iatarola. I agree that the feedback has been really helpful and I do think I can interweave aspects of it into my revisions for this study. I see what you mean about the second question and how a few tweaks to the wording might get more at the heart of the information I am looking for as well as making it more personally applicable to the school counselors. I do see how the survey could incorporate more of a focus on answering parts of RQ2. I will take a look at that, thank you for the feedback!

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