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FOCUS: Kentucky schools face student mental health challenges

Of the 19 Kentucky school districts in our viewing area, only six reportedly meet the state’s mandated ratio of one counselor to 250 students districtwide.

HARDINSBURG, Ky. — Breckinridge County schools are looking a lot like they did before COVID, back in-person and masks not required, but that’s on the surface. Below the surface though, there could be other things going on.

“It’s not always something that’s really obvious,” Emily Seeger, a school psychologist at Breckinridge County Middle School, said. “Since COVID, I do notice that kids have had a hard time transitioning back.”

Therefore, adequate mental health support is needed now more than ever. Kentucky leaders certainly believe so and require it. The state's standard is one school counselor/mental health provider per 250 public school students districtwide.

But most districts are struggling to get there, according to the Kentucky State School Security Marshal Ben Wilcox, based on the latest data.

“The actual state ratio, and it was 1 to 328, so we’re getting there,” Wilcox said.

FOCUS found that of the 19 Kentucky school districts in our viewing area, only 6 report that they meet the state’s mandated ratio.

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Jefferson County Public Schools says it has one school counselor/mental health provider for every 230 students.

Carroll County Schools has a ratio of 1:205; Washington County Schools, 1:148; Taylor County Schools, 1:215; and Hardin County Schools says it’s within the 1:250 ratio.

Breckinridge County Schools, meanwhile, considers itself compliant as well.

“Ours is 1 to every 251 students,” Superintendent Dr. Nick Carter said. “We’re right there where the state is recommending us be.”

Here are other school district's ratios:

  • Oldham County Schools -- 1:350 school counselor to students, 1:1500 school psychologist to students
  • Trimble County Schools -- 1:280
  • Henry County Schools -- 1:285
  • Bullitt County Public Schools -- 1:333
  • Spencer County Schools -- 1:320
  • Marion County Public Schools -- 1:291
  • Adair County Schools -- 1:260
  • Green County Schools -- 1:283
  • LaRue County Schools -- 1:460
  • Grayson County Schools -- 1:364
  • Meade County Schools -- 1:285
  • Nelson County Schools (did not report)
  • Shelby County Public Schools (TBD)

RELATED: A parent's guide to mental health as school starts back up

Although school counselors have traditionally provided students with guidance on career paths, these days mental health support is often part of the job.

“If their mental health is not good, academics are going to sink,” Sarah Butler, a school counselor at Breckinridge County High School, said.

They look for signs from the student body, including signs of depression and anxiety.

“Ostracism is huge,” Butler pointed out. “Once we started using Terrace Metrics, that’s probably one thing that I noticed was far more prevalent than I realized.”

Terrace Metrics is a newer tool more and more districts are using to help identify struggling students, and what they’re struggling from.

In the behavioral health screening program, students are asked a series of questions on a variety of subjects, including grit and bullying and can include drug and alcohol use as well as school violence.

“It’s really facilitating some great conversations, and helping connect families with mental health counselors and those resources that they need, if their children are struggling,” Dr. Carter said.

In addition to school counselors, the district currently has three school psychologists, including Seeger.

“Observe human behavior, that’s kind of why I got into psychology,” she said. “You can see a lot at lunchtime, at the tables to kind of see is somebody sitting by themselves? Are they not talking? Did they not look happy? You can notice things like that, that can alert you especially if it’s a change.”

That’s the time she and other support would likely step in and start a conversation.

“Students have to feel safe, they have to feel love, and they have to feel like you want them in the building.”

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