Every job and profession has its unique challenges. So why should the challenges facing school psychologists be of particular interest to those of us who aren’t school psychologists?
The answer is that the vast majority of the children in this country attend school. And increasing numbers of those children require mental health therapy services.
Administrators and teachers are critical to our children’s development. But what perhaps isn’t acknowledged enough is that school psychologists are becoming just as essential. Many times school psychologists are the invisible glue that keeps a school together, functioning smoothly on a day to day basis.
Without school psychologists, most students dealing with severe psychological and emotional issues would be lost. So, understanding and addressing the challenges that school psychologists face should be a high priority for all of us.
Because if the challenges that beset school psychologists aren’t solved, these dedicated men and women won’t be the only ones to suffer. It will ultimately be our youth as well, when their emotional and psychological problems aren’t resolved. And that is a problem that will eventually impact all of us.
What are the most grueling challenges that school psychologists face?
The breadth and depth of responsibilities that are part and parcel of most school psychologists’ daily routines are truly dizzying. School psychologists are expected to be experts in school systems, mental health, behavior, learning, and much more.
School Psychologists regularly deal with students with disabilities; behavioral issues including suicidal or homicidal behaviors; family issues that affect their disposition; and students who are bullying or being bullied.
On top of all that, school psychologists are vital players in evaluating children with educational disabilities. School psychologists are often relegated to working as “testing machines” for the IEP process.
Even those students who have no educational disabilities face pressure to perform well on standardized tests. This pressure has become a key factor contributing to increased anxiety among students. This anxiety has created yet another stream of students who will probably need the services of the school psychologist.
In reality, it would be optimal for school psychologists to spend their time focusing on what they were trained to do: crisis prevention and intervention, counseling, school-wide planning, including behavior and academic support, and parent education.
But when state budget cuts reduce funding to these programs, the task of the school psychologist switches from prevention and proactive responses to reacting to crises. School psychologists are the ones dealing with the aftermath of school shootings, suicides, and other tragedies that possibly could have been prevented in the first place with more preventative measures.
Advances in Technology
A study published by Duke University in 2017 found that increased use of technology was linked to a rise in behavior and self-regulation problems for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues.
These behavior and self-regulation problems took the form of lying, fighting, and other antisocial interactions. Also, these children experienced greater difficulty in paying attention, with some exhibiting significant attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder symptoms.
Surprisingly, the study found that problems lingered with some students for up to 18 months after the study was completed.
Another new challenge for school psychologists is the steady increase of cyberbullying, a direct result of increased cellphone and social media usage. On top of all of the other demands pulling at their precious time, now school psychologists need to attend cyber etiquette training to enable them to assist students in using electronics safely and guide them in making wise choices when using the internet.
But perhaps the most potentially dangerous problem that school psychologists face is that of burnout. Unfortunately, it’s a numbers game. Nationally it is recommended that the school psychologist to student ratio be 1:500-700. On average, the rate is 1:1200, and in some states, the rate exceeds 1:2000! This means that the average school psychologist is overworked, which practically guarantees reduced effectiveness.
Aside from being outnumbered, there are other causes for burnout. A condition known in the field as “Emotional Depletion or Emotional Fatigue” is felt by some psychologists. A practitioner who continually works with people who are in pain, feel suicidal, suffer grief from a personal loss, or are severely traumatized is vulnerable to become “infected” with the client’s pain. Carl Jung called this “psychic poisoning.”
Another quite similar condition is called “Vicarious Traumatization.” Vicarious Traumatization is the cumulative impact upon the therapist from working with clients who have suffered trauma. The therapist begins to personally suffer from engaging empathetically with the clients’ trauma. Contrary to what some may believe, even therapists lack an endless reservoir of empathy to give without paying the price.
At times, school psychologists work with students who threaten suicide or homicide. As it happens, most of the time, these dramatic ideations are never actualized. But the devoted therapist doesn’t when they will and when they won’t. In the meantime, there is a lot of worrying, which sometimes results in sleepless nights, fraught with anxiety about what might happen.
There is a lesser-known source of burnout as well. Unlike being a gardener or surgeon, therapists rarely see immediate or even tangible results from all their hard work. In most cases, the work is slow and has its ups and downs. And sometimes, when the therapy is successful, the client may leave therapy. The result is that the therapist never sees the long-term fruits of his/her labor. This lack of reinforcement can take its toll over time.
And then again, the school psychologist may become the safe “dumpster” for the client’s feelings. When the therapy is going well, there isn’t much concern. There may even be praise or gratitude here and there. But when the emotional distress is too overwhelming, the therapist may be in for some painful verbal jibes. This can lead to the therapist having doubts about his/her qualities, qualifications, or sense of worth.
And if all of this weren’t enough, school psychologists often feel like they are in the trenches alone. This often unspoken pressure can build over time and drain the therapist’s energy.
Now that we have identified some of the grueling challenges facing school psychologists, and we understand how critical these therapists are to the lives of so many children, we need to ask the big question: What can we do to help?
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