A homeless man sits against a brightly covered wall across the street from San Diego City College. Photo by Chris Stone
A homeless man sits against a brightly covered wall across the street from San Diego City College. Photo by Chris Stone

The need for therapists, counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists cannot be understated and the push to increase the number of these much-needed mental health practitioners should begin in our public schools. 

California is facing a massive shortage of mental health workers and one way to increase the number of mental health professionals is for schools to encourage students to pursue a career in public health the same way they pushed for students to enter the fields of science, technology, math and engineering, or STEM.  

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The push for STEM education initially came from companies that were struggling to meet the demands of a changing workforce and the difficulty of finding qualified workers to fill in-demand STEM positions. To address this workforce void, educational leaders began to encourage students to enter the STEM field.

As the push for students to enter the lucrative field of STEM grew, little or no focus was given to students who enter not-so-high-paying careers in social science. The lack of students entering into the social sciences after graduation has created a void in the number of mental health service practitioners that are so desperately needed today. 

The shortages of mental health service providers can also be attributed to both dwindling supply and growing demand. In general, professionals are aging out of these fields quicker than they are being replaced by younger professionals. And when it comes to addressing homelessness in San Diego there is no doubt that mental health and substance abuse wrap around services are needed to manage our growing homeless population.

Without enough mental health practitioners to provide wrap-around services, our homeless population will continue to grow and the homeless will continue to live on our streets, canyons and parks. 

Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom put forth a proposal, known as the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court. The CARE Court as it is called would provide a framework for courts to compel people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders into treatment, while also providing participants with supportive housing and wrap-around services. 

More than 40% of homeless individuals in San Diego County are believed to have a mental illness. And with the growing number of homeless there may not be enough mental health professionals available, and the success of the CARE Court could be compromised. 

The number of individuals who currently need mental health services is staggering. One out of every five people in the United States had a mental illness in 2019 — a total of 51.5 million people. Then COVID-19 struck. At the height of the pandemic, 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression — compared with 11% pre-COVID.

Currently, we do not have enough mental health care workers to treat people who are not homeless. If they are left untreated due to a lack of access to mental health counseling, many of these people could end up on the streets and that may be one of the reasons for the increase in the number of homeless in San Diego. 

More mental health care professionals are also needed in our public schools to facilitate students with mental health issues. School shutdowns intended to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions that negatively affected students and their families.

Addressing student mental health issues to prevent future homelessness must become a priority, and this can only be accomplished with proper funding and sufficient personnel. The San Diego Unified School District assigns each middle school one counselor for every 481 students and each high school one counselor for every 459 students, but that’s hardly enough. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. 

To address this issue California is offering to pay college graduates $20K if they become a school counselor for four years. They just have to commit to four years of working in a public school district that has a certain percentage of low-income families. However students are currently being denied entry to these program, because there are not enough faculty members to teach. 

In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Education launched a new initiative to enhance STEM education in an effort to ensure all students from Pre-K to higher education excel in rigorous, relevant, and compelling STEM learning. Now, that same push is required in the social sciences to help fill the void for behavior health jobs needed to care for our homeless population or they will remain untreated and remain living on the streets.

Mark Powell is a former San Diego County Board of Education member and president of Parents For Quality Education. He has a master’s degree in school counseling and a California school counseling credential and lives in San Diego.