UCF aims to narrow the gap with mental health counselor shortage

University of Central Florida professors and students are working to fill the gap with the nationwide shortage of mental health counselors in schools.

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Central Florida schools—from elementary to high school—are experiencing a shortage.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to 250 children.

In Florida, it’s nearly double what it should be-- one counselor per 436 children.

In some cases, schools might only have one counselor. Others may have none and are forced to share resources with other schools.

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“To not have that support in school is just really not serving our children in the way that we need to be serving them,” said Melissa Zeligman, associate professor of counselor education at UCF.

Zeligman is organizing the new program called Project Star this semester, which places graduate students in schools K through 12. The goal is to place 220 graduate students in local, high-need schools to serve as counselors over the next five years.

“It’s a win-win. Our students are getting to provide services and get their counseling practice. And we get to provide services free of charge to children who likely otherwise wouldn’t receive those services,” Zeligman said.

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Zeligman said that getting these graduate students into high-need schools it will encourage them to serve in those same communities after graduation and hopefully help with the counselor shortage.

UCF student Delaney Rust is assigned to a school in Duval County. She says after her internship, she hopes to stay with the school. Rust praised the program for giving students like her an opportunity to work in the profession before they graduate.

“Just being able to practice what I’ve been studying for years and years and years is really, really exciting because I finally am getting opportunities to put what I know into action,” Rust said.

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This year, the program started with a group of 31 students, who are spread out in districts in Central Florida and across the state. 13 paid interns are assigned across 13 Florida school districts-- ranging from Orange and Seminole counties to the Tampa area.

Eighteen practicum students are assigned to schools in Orange County-- primarily in low-income neighborhoods like Paramore.

“An area where many of these students have been exposed to violence. There’s been a loss of students right there in the communities that we’re serving. So it’s not atypical for our students to come in with significant trauma exposure, and grief and loss at the hands of gun violence or family violence,” Zeligman said.

Zeligman told Eyewitness News that in many areas UCF students are serving in, this is the first time these children and families are discussing mental health.

“So a lot of the work that we’ve been doing is even just addressing what is mental health? How can we work with you? What does it look like, take away maybe some of the shame or the stigma around those topics and get some buy in from the communities?” Zeligman said.

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