By DeJanay Booth

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Schools across Michigan are recruiting 562 mental and physical health professionals, the governor announced as experts said the increase is needed after years of understaffing and overburdening schools.

The effort to bolster the number of counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses in schools is being funded by the $17.1 billion state K-12 budget Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed last summer. It included a $240 million allocation to hire staff to support students as they grapple with mental and physical health needs that were highlighted and exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“The pandemic reminded us that school-based mental and physical health professionals are not luxuries,” Whitmer said in a news release. “Healthy students — physically, mentally, and social-emotionally — are better learners.”

School districts have until March 1 to hire staff to be eligible to apply for grants to fully fund positions with state money.

Michigan has been severely lacking in hiring and retaining mental health support staff for the last decade, said Terri Tchorzynski, president of the Michigan School Counselor Association.

Michigan ranked second worst in the U.S. in the 2019-2020 school year in its student-to-school-counselor ratio at 671-to-1, according to the American School Counselor Association, which recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.

Prior to the pandemic, Tchorzynski said she saw an increase in recent years of student mental health needs, specifically in the areas of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Those needs intensified as many students returned to in-person instruction in 2021 after being isolated from peers and school mental health resources during the height of the pandemic.

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“It just became exasperated tenfold because of all the trauma that the students are experiencing through the pandemic,” Tchorzynski said.

Getting funding to hire more mental health support staff is a great step for the state, said Elizabeth Koschmann, founder of Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students, or TRAILS. The group works with schools to create mental health programs. She said that reducing burnout for all school professionals and organizing in-school mental health systems more efficiently is key to making improvements last and allowing staff to work to the best of their trained abilities.

Koschmann said Michigan has asked a lot of public school faculty and staff: to manage the spread of COVID-19 in the school population; recover academic loss due to the pandemic; and to identify students whose mental health is strained and then connect them with resources.

But schools have not been funded or equipped to properly perform all these tasks.

“Schools are doubling up math and doubling up English courses for their students to try to make up for lost academic instructional time,” Koschmann said. “It seems to me like a huge mistake to think that we can focus on academic recovery without very much equally focusing on social emotional recovery.”

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