Audit finds many NY school districts lack sufficient staff for mental health services and adequate oversight of mental health education
Submitted by the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli
Too many of New York school districts’ mental health teams are understaffed, with too few available services and inconsistent and limited oversight of mental health education for students, an audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found.
“The upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis for many students in New York, but not enough is being done to make sure they are getting the information and support they need,” DiNapoli said. “The State Education Department should work with state and local entities to ensure resources to address the problem are available, and prioritize mental health instruction and outreach among school districts so students and staff can recognize warning signs of distress and know how to get help. I’m encouraged that the department responded positively to our recommendations.”
According to the American Psychological Association, over 80% of teens experienced more intense school-related stress due to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in 2020, mental health emergency room visits rose 24% among 5- to 11-year-olds, and 31% among 12- to 17-year-olds. In December 2021, the U.S. surgeon general issued a warning of an urgent mental health crisis among America’s youth.
Prior to the pandemic, the State Education Department (SED) published guidance and resources for mental health education on its website and, during the pandemic, gave school districts further instruction about the importance of checking on students’ mental health and promoting the availability of resources for those in distress.
But as DiNapoli’s audit shows, most of the state’s 686 districts outside of New York City entered the pandemic with mental health teams that were far short of nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios:
√ 19 school districts reported having no mental health professional staff at all;
√ 653 (95%) did not meet the recommended ratio of one school social worker for every 250 students;
√ 450 districts (66%) did not meet the recommended ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students; and
√ 344 (50%) did not meet the recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students.
The audit notes that, while state law does not require school districts to provide in-school mental health services to most students, schools are often considered the natural and best setting for comprehensive prevention and early intervention services, and that the need for these services will likely increase as COVID-19-related and other life stresses continue to plague students.
New York was the first state to require school districts provide mental health education. Given the urgency of the growing mental health crisis, SED should ensure that school districts statewide have established a mental health curriculum and are using it. Currently, the department does not require districts to verify they’re meeting mandated mental health education standards, so it cannot be sure of what districts are, or are not, providing students.
DiNapoli’s auditors surveyed 22 school districts. While all were able to describe the mental health curriculum they implemented, only 19 actually provided supporting documentation to show they provided some sort of mental health education and met the state’s minimum requirements. Three districts could not show evidence of providing mental health education in the midst of the ongoing crisis. Auditors also found that the mental health curricula varied among the districts. SED, however, remained unaware of what any of these districts were, or were not, providing students in terms of mental health education.
Without some level of oversight, SED cannot be assured that students are receiving mental health education or that the instruction achieves the intent of the law. Mental health education is one of the key ways school districts can support the mental health of all students. With the stakes so high, the department should act quickly to avert further crisis.
DiNapoli recommended SED:
√ Explore partnering with state and local entities to determine whether school districts should maintain certain staffing levels for mental health professionals; and
√ Develop a mechanism to determine if school districts are providing mental health education as required by law.
SED generally agreed with the audit’s findings. The department’s response is included in the report.