Eileen Melody Credit: Contributed photo

As a school counselor, Eileen Melody often has students at her office door from the time school starts to the end of the day, she said.

There were middle-school students dealing with anxiety, depression and trauma prior to March 2020. But since schools closed, went remote and hybrid and then opened full-time during the pandemic, the need to talk to someone like her has skyrocketed, she said.

“It’s definitely increased,” said Melody, who works in Mansfield. “There are now students I see on a regular basis so we can discuss strategies to manage anxiety and depression. There are some that I am watching for self-harm. Over these past two years, I’ve been very busy managing those kids on a regular basis. Our kids like to come to school because they know they are going to get help.”

Melody is one of hundreds of school counselors managing a tidal wave of mental health issues among children in the wake of the pandemic interruption to classes and life. But she and others were dismayed when HB 5001 was drafted by the Public Committee with no mention of funding to increase the number of school counselors statewide.

The bill is meant to address the increased need for children’s mental health services by cutting red tape to make it easier for people to obtain certifications in social work, psychology and other behavioral health fields. It also includes loan forgiveness for those seeking careers in mental health and changes to inpatient and outpatient treatment to make it easier for parents to access on a timely basis.

“This crisis started a decade ago, and the pandemic exacerbated the issue,” said Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, a Public Health Committee member and one of the sponsors of the bill. “The goal is to ultimately provide everyone – those on HUSKY, the underinsured, and the privately insured – to receive timely mental health care before they reach the higher levels of acuity we’re seeing today.”

“Not knowing how and where to get help has resulted in more children being brought to the ER and inpatient treatment than ever before,” Linehan added. “By ensuring access to mental health care in schools, in pediatricians’ offices, through intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs and in-home services, we will help children lead happy, healthy lives with supportive mental wellness and health care.”

The bill also provides an unspecified amount of grant funding to be administered by the State Department of Education for schools to hire more behavioral health staff.

School counselors fall under that category and Linehan said they will be added to the bill in subsequent drafts. “We were very clear that it’s a work in progress,” Linehan said.

In meantime, members of the Connecticut School Counselors Association will be providing testimony at a public hearing on the legislation Friday to point out the value of what they do on a daily basis, said Virginia DeLong, who is the Director of Counseling and Admissions at Norwich Technical High School and a leader in the association.

“We need more of us in schools,” DeLong said. “We saw the mental health crisis coming even before the pandemic. We need the state to provide a specific amount of funding that is earmarked to hire behavioral health staff and we want to be included in that.”

Melody is one of the lucky ones, she said. Her school has enough counselors to provide a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. In some school districts in the state, the ratio is one counselor to 400, or even 600 students, she said. In other schools, there are no counselors, Melody said. “Less than 25% of the elementary schools in the state have a counselor,” she added.

On any given school day, Melody is tending to the needs of some students who are having a crisis so compelling that they feel they can’t stay in the classroom, she said. The shifting school situations left some kids with anxiety about dealing with other classmates and the noisy atmosphere in class or at lunch, she said.

“I often become the person to start their day,” Melody said. “We discuss strategies such as talking to your teacher or asking to come see me if they become overwhelmed and feel they can’t stay in class. We listen to music, we do talk therapy. They really want to be heard. There is much more reliance on school staff to help students.”

She has three groups of eight children who spend their lunch period in her office talking quietly as she steers the conversation in a positive direction, she said.

“It’s a safe place to sit for lunch,” Melody said. “It’s not easy for some kids to find others to sit with in the cafeteria. For some, it’s too loud and they need a break from school, so they come to my office and have a nice conversation.”

She also sees to the needs of students who are facing trauma at home including homelessness, and provides problem-solving strategies.

“I often wonder, what would happen if I wasn’t in the building?” Melody said. “We have a fair number of students who are anxious. We are trying very hard not to put pressure on them, but some are afraid to come to school.”