How a New Generation of School Counselors is Tackling the Youth Mental Health Crisis
Youth mental health needs have skyrocketed. The Youth Mental Health Leadership emphasis in UVA’s Counselor Education program is graduating counselors who are prepared to lead the response.
When the pandemic hit, Aloise Phelps saw how schools across the country were struggling to meet students’ growing mental health needs. She felt called to help, but unsure about what to do. It was a conversation with UVA professor Julia Taylor that convinced her to become a school counselor. “If you want to help youth,” Phelps remembers Taylor saying, “go where they are – and that’s schools.”
Phelps enrolled in UVA’s counselor education program – specifically, in the youth mental health leadership emphasis, which launched in 2020 to help address a growing youth mental health crisis.
“Youth mental health needs have skyrocketed,” said Taylor, an associate professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and co-director of the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health. “The school mental health leadership emphasis was designed to ensure that graduate students are responsive to rising youth mental health concerns and serve as leaders working within comprehensive school mental health services.”
Hina Zafar, who graduated from the program in 2022, is entering her second year as a school counselor. While much of her time is spent in one-on-one sessions with students, she also spends her days leading group counseling sessions and collaborating with other counselors, teachers, and administrators on school-wide initiatives. Then there’s the emails and parent communication.
Providing school-based mental health support means working within a complex system – not only with students, but also teachers, nurses, social workers, administrators and district leaders, parents and the larger community. A core element of UVA's program is to teach graduate students the unique role that a school counselor plays within these systems.
Natoya Haskins, associate professor and director of the counselor education program, said school counselors are in an optimal position to spearhead system-wide initiatives that support student mental health. “Counselors take a preventative approach by offering programming that promotes self-acceptance, empathy, healthy relationships, and motivation,” she said. “With their comprehensive perspective, counselors can drive changes that foster an environment where students at every grade level can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.”
Students who elect into the emphasis complete nine extra hours of coursework on topics like comprehensive school mental health services, psychopathology, and family therapy. With grant funding from a state partnership designed to aid recruitment and retention of mental health professionals in Virginia schools, many also complete extra internship hours, write research-to-practice briefs, and engage with community of school mental health practitioners.
Through these courses and experiences, students in the program learn about how to provide culturally responsive, evidence-based interventions at different levels: including division, school, large group, small group, and individual. They practice how to collaborate, consult, and advocate with a variety of students and colleagues through extensive internship hours.
“Our students graduate with an understanding of their unique role on a multidisciplinary team,” Taylor said. “They learn about systems issues and root cause analysis – how to figure out the root of a problem in order to recommend appropriate interventions to solve that problem, rather than put band-aids over system issues.”
Of course, not everything is within their control. Structural and societal problems like equal access and stigma are much larger than a school counselor can solve. But understanding their role within complex systems helps them focus their energy to best advocate for their students and avoid burnout.
"Advocacy is a critical component of the school counseling role,” Taylor said. “They have to understand and identify barriers to student success and then work within complex systems to help eliminate them.”
Phelps, who is beginning her first year as a full-time counselor, said one of the most important skills she learned during graduate school was how to advocate for students. “It's not just about changing their schedules or handing them tissues, it's truly, are you willing to go to bat for the student?” she said. “I really feel like my skills in that were honed to where I can represent a student in a meeting who may not be able to speak for themselves.”
Each week, Zafar meets with a team of counselors, teachers, and academic coaches to plan school-wide programming. This year, after realizing that many students are struggling with self-management and relationship-building skills, she said her team has plans to implement a new, more intentional approach to supporting these skills, using a framework she learned about in graduate school.
“There isn't one part of the program that I feel was a waste of time,” she said.
Zafar acknowledges that she can’t solve every problem for her students, which she said can be discouraging at times. But she also understands that the relationships she builds with students reach far beyond the school grounds.
“A lot of students we refer outside to therapists, and sometimes the relationship they have with us will influence what they think therapy might be like,” she said. “If they don't feel like they can trust us, why are they going to want to go talk to some other person that doesn't even know anything about their life? I feel like we can set a foundation for mental health support and what that can look like. Oftentimes, the way we talk about mental health support can ease students into the transition of starting therapy.”
“For many students, the counselor may be the only adult in school they trust to listen without judgment during difficult times,” said Haskins. “Students rely on their counselor to offer a safe space, show empathy, maintain privacy, and give care focused solely on the student's needs.”
With the growing need for greater mental health support in schools, a career as a school counselor offers excellent job security. But above all, both Zafar and Phelps said the job is about building relationships with students – and it's those relationships that inspire and motivate them every day.
“I wanted a job that gave me purpose, and this is definitely purposeful work,” Phelps said. “I feel like I'm the most privileged person in the world because I get to build relationships with kids for a living. It is so fulfilling to watch them grow and learn and to be able to help them walk across the graduation stage, or work through a parent's divorce, or deal with their anxiety. I'm just always very humbled by the opportunity when kids let me into their lives.”
M.Ed. in Counselor Education
Learn more about the emphasis in youth mental health leadership.