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SMART plan aims to increase mental health care professionals available for Michigan’s students

LANSING, Mich. — School counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists would be incentivized to continue working within school systems and grow their mental health care services under legislation introduced by Sen. Curt VanderWall and Rep. Bronna Kahle.

“Studies continue to show us that there is a great need to improve access to mental health care within our school systems — and we know that need has been accelerated by responses to the pandemic over the past two years,” said VanderWall, R-Ludington. “Many times, mental health professionals will serve a particular school district in an apprenticeship or internship capacity as part of educational and training requirements and then go on to leave these schools after receiving their degree or certification. The SMART plan would encourage these professionals to remain within these school systems, where they are critically needed, and to have ownership and grow vitally important mental health care programs.”

The legislators have introduced House Bill 6020 and Senate Bill 1012 to establish the Student Mental Health Apprenticeship for Retention and Training, or SMART program, to provide school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists substantial tuition assistance for their commitment to remain within the district they service after completing specialized certifications and master’s level educational requirements.

“The government’s response to COVID and the effects of the virus itself have left no one in our community unscathed. Whether a person was infected by the virus, lost a job or a livelihood, was plagued by fear or was traumatized by extended, forced periods of isolation, the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on all of us,” said Kahle, R-Adrian. “Research is showing that children and youth have borne the brunt of this trauma, as evidenced by the tragic and sharp rise in rates of addiction, depression, and suicide among this age group. These priceless young people represent our future and it is imperative that every student have access to quality counseling.”

Michigan ranks second to last among U.S. states and territories for having counselors available to students — one counselor for every 671 students, according to the most recent American School Counselor Association report. The organization recommends a ratio of 1:250. The Michigan School Counselor Association reported in a recent Detroit Free Press article that only around 2,100 of the state’s 6,300 licensed school counselors are practicing.

Comparatively, there is one qualified school psychologist for every 1,521 students in Michigan, which is above the national average of one for every 1,211 as reported by the National Association of School Psychologists, which recommends a ratio of 1:500.

“Shortages in school psychology, like shortages in other related education and mental health professions, have the potential to significantly undermine the availability of high-quality services to students, families, and schools,” said Lauren Mangus, president of the Michigan Association of School Psychologists. “Consequences of the shortages include unmanageable caseloads; the inability for school psychologists to provide prevention and early intervention services or regularly consult with families and teachers; reduced access to mental and behavioral health services for some students; and limited scope of service delivery focused primarily on legally mandated special education practice.”

The SMART plan has also gained support from the state’s school counselor and social worker groups.

“It is imperative that we invest in the future of our students by investing in the development of trained professionals who are equipped with the skills and knowledge to support academic success, social-emotional development, and the career preparedness of our K-12 students,” said Terri Tchorzynski, Michigan School Counselor Association president. “The SMART plan is an innovative approach to strengthening the talent pipeline for school counselors to ensure that every student in the state of Michigan has access to the professional support they need to be successful in school and beyond.”

Michigan Association of State Social Workers President Kathy Weaver added, “Teachers are asking now more than ever for mental health support for their students. Unfortunately, there are not enough highly qualified, trained school social workers available to meet the demand. This is especially true for our more rural areas which have smaller pools of applicants. Once hired, the school social worker might be the only one in the district, which could mean high caseloads and along with other duties outside of the scope of school social work practice. This creates a real issue for the retention of school social workers. This initiative will go a long way to expanding the school mental health workforce to meet demand and assure our students achieve their best.”

VanderWall and Kahle said the SMART plan will have a positive and meaningful impact for students across Michigan and are thankful their legislation is supported by school mental health care advocates.

“I have listened and learned from dedicated school counselors and behavioral health professionals from across Lenawee County and with the severe shortage of qualified mental health providers, they are stretched far too thin. This plan will ensure experienced and well-educated counselors stay working in our schools where they are so greatly needed,” Kahle said.

VanderWall added, “There is an overwhelming need to improve the state of mental health care programs within schools across Northern Michigan and the entire state; the SMART plan is a smart move in the right direction for the students who need these resources.”