The number of students dealing with anxiety and depression has come under increased spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic, as schools across the country continue to triage behavioral and academic challenges.

But students in Hawaii were struggling with mounting rates of depression long before their academic lives were so dramatically disrupted.

Between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of teenagers who reported having a major depressive episode nearly doubled in the state, according to data analyzed by the National Association of State Boards of Education for the Hawaii Board of Education.

Kea'au High School students walk across campus.
Kea‘au High saw a sharp uptick in student fights and mental health challenges last fall, as students returned to campus for in-person learning after a year-and-a-half of mostly virtual classes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In 2020 — the most recent year data is available — 18.4% of teens in Hawaii reported struggling with depression, up from 9.9% just five years prior.

Despite the increase, Hawaii has just a fraction of the number of school psychologists recommended by national groups to help identify struggling students and get them on a path to academic success and mental wellbeing.

The National Association of School Psychologists currently recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students. Last year, Hawaii employed 61 school psychologists — about one for every 2,800 students.

Unlike many school districts on the mainland that rely almost entirely on school counselors and school psychologists to address student behavior and mental health, Hawaii schools also employ nearly 300 behavioral health specialists, along with about 45 clinical psychologists who all work collaboratively to address student needs, a DOE spokesperson said in an email.

But having other trained professionals working in a district does not negate the need for school psychologists, argues Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards at NASP.

“The idea of saying, ‘You have school counselors, who needs a school psychologist?’ is like saying, ‘Well, you have a doctor so you don’t need a nurse,’” Rossen said. “They are not interchangeable professions.”

Undervalued And Under-Regulated

Hawaii is the only state that does not have a license for school psychologists and one of only three states without a university degree program to train them.

The Hawaii Association of School Psychologists has been calling for Hawaii lawmakers to create a licensing system for school psychologists for the last eight years.

Several bills to do that have been introduced, but failed to pass after objections from various groups as to who would be the credentialing agency and whether there needs to be a constitutionally mandated study before creating a newly regulated profession in the state, said Leslie Baunach, a board member of HASC and former DOE school psychologist who worked on the bill.

The most recent bill, introduced in the last legislative session, was referred to the Attorney General’s Office for analysis, Baunach said.

Making school psychologists a licensed profession in the state would help ensure that only people with the right specialized training would be in the position, Baunach said. But it could also help address pay disparities that make vacant positions hard to fill and elevate the profession to a more respected place in the state.

School psychologists in most states are graduates of a specialized training program that requires several years of post-baccalaureate study and falls somewhere in between a master’s degree and a doctorate.

Like clinical psychologists, school psychologists are experts on mental health, but they also have specific training in classroom teaching and student behavior and how various issues intersect to impact students academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally, Rossen said.

The number of teens reporting a major depressive episode has been rising nationally, but Hawaii has seen higher than average increases. Screenshot

School psychologists can perform emotional and behavioral assessments, but also academic screening to determine interventions based on isolated skill needs, said Alec Marentic, a DOE school psychologist based on the Big Island.

When a student is struggling academically, for example, school psychologists can help teachers determine if the issue is with something as specific as phonetic awareness and then pair them with the correct reading intervention to address that need.

They also have a lot of training in behavioral support and school climate issues. When there are enough school psychologists in a district, they will also often provide counseling to students who need academic or emotional support, Rossen said. In many states, they also provide mental health support for teachers on campus.

The further schools get from the recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, the more the role becomes focused on compliance and special education-related services and less around supporting students in the general education population, Rossen said.

That means less time spent on preventive services, family engagement, consultative services, and less direct and indirect interventions for students who may be struggling, Rossen said.

In Hawaii, school psychologists are a district-level position. They work as part of a team effort to address academic, behavioral and emotional challenges in schools.

Marentic said he currently services four schools and spends about 90% to 95% of his time working on tasks related to timelines and compliance for special education students, such as team meetings, assessments and eligibility meetings.

In addition to lobbying for a bill to regulate the profession, HASP is also encouraging parents to seek out the services of school psychologists. 

All children are supposed to have access to a school psychologist and parents can request to have school psychologists present at any meeting they have with a public school, Baunach said. 

“Teachers are asking for us, counselors are asking for us, and that’s not enough right now,” Baunach said. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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