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Students plagued by suicidal thoughts, bullying and school violence amid school psychologist shortage

Posted: 4:21 PM, Feb 11, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-12 14:03:21-05
School Desk

CLEVELAND — Students in Ohio are considering taking their own lives, living under the thumb of bullies and facing violence in their hallways, with nowhere to turn.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reveals an alarming shortage of school psychologists in Ohio. Without that critical resource, those students who need that help the most, are at an even higher risk.

It's Not Enough

Our investigation reviewed data supplied by the Ohio Department of Education and found 1,898 psychologists working in 611 school districts across the state.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends at least one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. It warned there is a shortage of psychologists both in Ohio and across the nation.

Ohio state law only requires school districts to provide one school psychologist for every 2,500 students. Our investigation found many of them are responsible for multiple schools, that can be miles apart.

Ohio Department of Education records reveal students continue to face serious physical and emotional challenges.

Records show 330,000 students were suspended last year for disruptive behavior and fighting. Of them, 5,000 were left with “serious bodily harm.”

And this shortage of school psychologists could have an even more devastating impact.

Ohio faces a shortage of school psychologists

A Devastating Impact

“I never met with a psychologist there,” remembers Julia Paxton, who told News 5 she struggled with mental illness in middle school.

By high school, Julia was considering suicide.

“I had to leave school because all I could think about was killing myself,” says Paxton.

Julia Paxton left school because of her struggle with suicidal thoughts. She did not have a school psychologist available to her.

Tragically, records show many others have.

Between 2007 and 2018, 193 students, as young as 10 to 14 years old, committed suicide, with those numbers increasing every year, according to data released by the Ohio Department of Health.

If you or someone you know is struggling, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

A Warning for the Future

Numbers like that spurred the Ohio School Psychologists Association to create a joint task force to address this school psychologist shortage. Using data from July 2016, it found that if changes aren’t made by next year, there will be 294 “unfilled positions.”

“We continue to experience shortages of school psychologists in many parts of the state,” said Ann Brennan, Executive Director of the OSPA.

We found several factors that could be contributing to the shortage of school psychologists:

  • Changes to the State Teachers Retirement System offered incentives for eligible school psychologists to retire by the end of 2015
  • A higher than normal rate of the natural decline of school psychologist students
  • Lack of approved school psychology training programs in rural areas
  • Resistance to move to rural areas

Fighting for Change

During a hearing at The Ohio Senate Finance Committee last May, Brennan told lawmakers “the school psychology shortage has worsened in recent years.”

One recommendation made during Brennan’s testimony “is the concept of a ‘grow your own’ recruitment and retention program to place school psychologists in the hardest to staff schools.”

Hanging in the balance is nothing less than the health and happiness of Ohio’s children.

Ohio School Psychologists Association works to address school psychologist shortage

The National Alliance for Mental Illness reports one in five children have or will have a serious mental illness.

Dr. Erich Merkle, Ph.D., a past president of the Ohio School Psychologist Association, said there are schools and high schools across the state without a school psychologist.

“Simply stated,” says Merkle, “there are not enough psychologists.”

Forging a Path

Julia eventually got the help she needed through a program known as On Our Sleeves at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

“It was a life-changing experience, said Julia. "I never felt so validated.”

She is now succeeding in college and urging others “to talk about what you’re going through. You don’t need to go through it alone.”