The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
It all started when Induja Kumar realized one of her best friends was struggling with self-harm and depression. Without parents to take her seriously or a professional to talk to at her school in Arizona, the friend began to sink.
While Kumar and others were able to support the friend enough for her to recover, it put everyone in a risky position.
“The fact that we, as students, as teenage girls, had to deal with a person who is suicidal, it just shouldn’t happen,” Kumar, 17, said. “That should never be a situation that we have to deal with.”
Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio is the worst in the nation, averaging at about 905 students per counselor. In response to this and her friend’s predicament, Kumar and another teen, Catherine Broski, helped lobby the state legislator for $20 million to increase mental health resources in Arizona schools to advocate for a “safe mind, safe campus.”
Access to counselors and social workers—rather than the addition of school resource officers—is critical to supporting students’ mental health, Broski said.
“If you can’t feel safe where you are, you can’t focus in class,” Broski, 18, said. “All of those things don’t contribute to a safe campus because they’re not contributing to a safe mind.”
Schools are an intersection of different parts of students’ identity so they need mental health resources to support students, Tahira Khalid, social worker at a middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., said.
“Some of the issues the activists are talking about in terms of gun violence and toxic masculinity and representation are issues that are of particular importance to young people now,” Khalid said. “Social workers and counselors make space for that.”
Kumar feels the need every day at school.“We see that teenage girls are very susceptible to self-harm because they don’t have the right mental health resources to provide them with a stable background in which to find themselves and accept their femininity,” Kumar said.
The original goal was a state-wide bill allocating better mental health resources in public schools. After failing in the House rules committee, Kumar and Broski got the attention of Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction.
Hoffman saw how important the issue was and was able to get a $20 million grant from the state to hire 148 school counselors, 118 social workers, and 117 school resource officers.
It’s a start. But Kumar and Broski don’t think it is enough, so they’re pursuing House Bill 2256 again to focus solely on mental health resources and remove school resource officers—police officers who are responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools—who they believe militarize schools.
The recent hire of school counselors is a start to decreasing Arizona’s student to counselor ratio to the recommended average of 250 to 1, said Katherine Pastor-Lorents, a school counselor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona.
Broski and Kumar’s push for mental health resources also aligns with the March For Our Lives Peace Plan, which states that mental health work and the fight against gun violence should be “preventative” and “proactive.”
“This is just the first step in a series of steps that need to be taken in order to make sure that no kid has to deal with something as big as depression, and nor do the other people in that community have to take on the brunt of what a professional should be doing,” Kumar said.