Counseling Home Blog How Do School Counselors Help With Mental Health and Well-Being?

How Do School Counselors Help With Mental Health and Well-Being?

12 Dec
Teenager talking to female counselor

Why is student mental health the concern of school counselors? In an issue brief titled Mental Health and Academic Achievement, the New Hampshire Department of Education explains, “Mental health is best thought of as the way a young person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect his or her life … A mental illness is a condition that impacts a young person’s thinking, emotions, and mood such that it interferes with his or her daily functioning at home and school.”1

It wasn’t long ago that counselors in schools were called ‘guidance counselors.’ They provided vocational guidance and, in later years, help for students pursuing college or university educations. As these professionals’ responsibilities have changed, however, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has consistently encouraged use of the title ‘school counselors’ instead.2 According to the ASCA, “School counselors recognize and respond to the need for mental health services that promote social/emotional wellness and development for all students. [They] advocate for the mental health needs of all students by offering instruction that enhances awareness of mental health, appraisal and advisement addressing academic, career and social/emotional development; short-term counseling interventions; and referrals to community resources for long-term support.”3

That’s a tall order for any individual or departmental staff, but the need for mental health support in education settings continues to grow. Writing in 2022 for the ASCA magazine, Dr. Wendy Rock cited the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in saying, “Today’s students are experiencing an increase in mental health concerns. Over the past two decades, there has been a steady increase in youth anxiety, depression, substance use and suicide.”4

Read on to explore the importance of, and school counselors’ role in supporting, student mental health and well-being.

The Impact of Student Mental Health

Anyone unconvinced of the prevalence of mental health challenges among students need look no further for confirmation than a recent 10-year study published by the CDC. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011–2021 notes, “As we saw in the 10 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health among students overall continues to worsen, with more than 40% of high school students feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year—a possible indication of the experience of depressive symptoms. We also saw significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide.” The study showed:5

  • 42% of students felt persistently sad or hopeless
  • 29% experienced poor mental health
  • 22% seriously considered attempting suicide
  • 10% attempted suicide

The CDC study included high school students. Early in 2023, CNN reported on the results of a survey of 12,000 adult high-school graduates who had not yet completed an associate or bachelor’s degree. Conducted in late 2022 by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, a private independent organization focused on creating accessible opportunities for post-secondary learning, it found that two out of five undergraduates, including nearly half of female students, said that they frequently experience emotional stress while attending college. More than 40% of students had considered dropping out in the past six months, with most citing emotional stress and personal mental health as the reason.6

Mental Health and Academic Outcomes

The New Hampshire issue brief lists a sobering array of ways in which un- or undertreated mental health issues can affect students in school. They include:1

  • Difficulty controlling attention during learning tasks
  • Trouble persevering during challenging academic tasks
  • Trouble recalling academic information and completing homework
  • Slowed problem-solving
  • Reduced standardized achievement test scores
  • Lower end-of-course grades
  • Frequent absences from school due to illness and school avoidance
  • Trouble making and/or maintaining friendships
  • Low energy for physical activity, including sports and other recreation
  • Difficulty following school routines and norms, resulting in suspension and expulsion
  • Course credit deficiencies over time
  • Reduced high school graduation rates
  • Interference with attainment of General Equivalency Degree (GED) and technical education certifications
  • Difficulty completing post-secondary coursework
  • Difficulty managing independent life demands in college
  • Interference with college attendance and college completion

Ways to Support Students’ Mental Health

School counselors are trained to recognize mental health risk factors and to provide counseling, which can improve their students’ mental health as well as their overall functioning, personal and social development, career development, and educational success.7

Individual and group counseling sessions provide distinct benefits. In individual therapy, the counselor can tailor the conversation to the student’s unique needs. Group therapy sessions may function as peer support groups: Students can share and address common challenges, develop coping strategies and skill-building techniques in concert with their peers, and find support from others whose experience—perhaps with stress, self-care, time management, academic pressures, and social or familial relationships—is similar to their own.

If a student's needs exceed the mental health care available within a school counseling setting, counselors may be called upon to provide referral services to outside mental health resources. Within the school setting from early childhood through higher education, however, they're a dynamic force for supporting their charges' mental health, using these techniques, among others:

Create a Safe and Confidential Space

It’s essential to establish a welcoming, non-judgmental environment in which counseling conversations will take place. This helps students know that they can express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgment or reprisal. A psychologically safe environment such as this helps them feel free to take risks, make mistakes, and ask for help or support, and encourages them to identify what skills they lack and wish to strengthen.8

Another vital attribute of this safe counseling environment is its confidentiality. According to the ASCA, it is the school counselor’s responsibility to “respect the right to privacy of those with whom they enter a counseling relationship and to provide an atmosphere of trust and confidence.” The counselor “has an ethical and legal obligation to keep information contained within that relationship.”9 Further, confidentiality helps to build trust, rapport, and effective communication between counselor and student.

Ideally, each school counselor is part of a team of teachers, school administrators, and parents/guardians working to help each student thrive and succeed. Because of these partnerships, it’s important to note that, in some cases, there are higher priorities than student confidentiality. As the ASCA puts it, “Exceptions to confidentiality exist, and students should be informed when situations arise in which school counselors have a responsibility to disclose information obtained in counseling relationships to others to protect students, themselves or other individuals.”9

Provide Culturally Inclusive Counseling

A counselor’s knowledge of and respect for diverse backgrounds and perspectives is another important contributor to trust and safety in the counseling relationship. School mental health professionals who are culturally competent are better equipped to understand and appreciate their students’ unique experiences. They can adjust their counseling approach to each student’s cultural norms, which can lead to better outcomes. They’re also equipped to nurture students’ sense of pride in their cultural identity, which fosters self-esteem and student success.10 Through culturally sustaining counseling programs, these experts create “systematic change through growth, self-awareness, humility, knowledge of worldviews and cultural identities.”11

Identify Distress Signals and Take Early Preventative Action

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that, “For some people, particularly children and teens, [symptoms of stress] may last for weeks or even months and may influence their relationships with families and friends.”12 In order to help students process and recover from stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, school counselors must be able to recognize the signs of them. The HHS lists the following indicators of distress in students:12

Aged six to 11 (elementary school)Aged 12 to 18 (middle and high school)Adult students (college and graduate school)
Withdraw from playgroups and friendsBecome withdrawn
Experience crying spells or bursts of anger; lose interest in daily activities
Compete more for adult attentionResist authority
Have difficulty eating
Become unwilling to leave homeBecome disruptive or aggressive at home or in the classroomExperience increasing physical distress such as headaches or stomach pains
Become less interested in schoolwork; have difficulty concentratingExperiment with high-risk behaviors such as drinking or prescription drug misuse and abuseFeel fatigued, guilty, helpless, or hopeless
Become aggressive and/or experience added conflict with peers or parentsAvoid family and friends

According to Mental Health America (MHA), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of mental health, well-being, and illness prevention, “Half of those who will develop mental health disorders show symptoms by age 14. Fortunately, we know how to act early.”13

Early intervention can promote coping skills and resilience by equipping students with the necessary tools to react positively to change and obstacles in life, allowing greater mental, social, and academic success. As reported in BMC Psychology, a systematic review of literature on resilience-enhancing, primary school-based mental health promotion programs found that they improve students’ ability to manage daily stressors, improve their academic outcomes, and often decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. These programs focus on the development of coping skills, mindfulness, emotion recognition and management, empathic relationships, self-awareness and efficacy, and help-seeking behavior.14

MHA advocates for “investing in prevention and early intervention programs and providing access to appropriate services. Studies around the country prove … that we are able to prevent or mitigate the effects of mental illness and allow individuals to live fulfilling, productive lives in the community.”13

Provide Suicide- and Crisis-Prevention Assistance

As reported in August 2023 by the CDC, suicide rates in this country reached an all-time high in 2022, with the numbers increasing fastest among younger people, among other demographic groups.15 According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “While rare in children younger than 10 years, suicide death rates increase markedly during adolescence and young adulthood.”16

Warning signs that a teen might be suicidal can take various forms. The Mayo Clinic advises that they may include:17

  • Talking or writing about suicide—for example, making statements such as "I'm going to kill myself," or "I won't be a problem for you much longer."
  • Using more and more alcohol or drugs
  • Feeling trapped, hopeless, or helpless about a situation
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things
  • Giving away personal items for no clear, logical reason

Some warning signs might seem like typical teenage behavior:17

  • Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
  • Becoming less social and wanting to be alone
  • Having mood swings

In recognizing the warning signs that a student might be in crisis or at risk of suicide, providing immediate support, and collaborating with other mental health professionals in cases of emergency, school counselors can make a difference that is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Help students thrive in and outside of school.

Led by world-class faculty, William & Mary’s Online M.Ed. in Counseling program with a concentration in School Counseling will develop your ability to guide the mental, emotional and physical development of students of all ages. With emphasis on social justice, cultural responsiveness, program planning and evaluation practices, the robust curriculum in this CACREP-accredited program provides the knowledge and insight you need to become a transformative influence in students’ lives. Prepare to help them maximize their ability to learn, engage with peers, navigate early-life decisions and become more resilient.

Students need your expertise, so don’t wait. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today.

  1. Retrieved on December 4, 2023, from
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  11. Retrieved on December 4, 2023, from Grothaus, T., Johnson, K. F., & Edirmanasinghe, N. (2020). Culturally sustaining school counseling. Alexandria: VA: American School Counseling Association
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