Covid reveals mental health gaps in Philly schools

Fatoumata Sidibe, a 16-year-old student at Bodine High School, said the large counselor-to-student ratio is a problem at her school.

“I kept stressing that we need more counselors and we need them to be aware of our problems,” she said.
Fatoumata Sidibe, 16, is a rising junior at Bodine High School in Philadelphia. She spoke about a lack of counselors at her school during a panel discussion Mon., Aug. 8, 2022. (Courtesy of Children First)

Even when students did get time with a counselor, Sidibe said the focus often stayed on academic concerns.

“We don’t really have a connection with the counselors so far, and we haven’t even had that conversation at all to focus on the students’ mental health,” she said. “It’s like they focus on the people who have more problems than [those] they feel are thriving already. We’re not thriving. We’re just surviving.”

Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors Consortium in Philadelphia and the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity, said funding alone won’t solve the problem.

“It’s really the coordination, for example, of federal government and city government and superintendent and nonprofit all in one space,” she said. “We have to hold one another accountable.”

Stanford, now a region director at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the city needed to partner more closely with community health organizations already filling the gaps left by the school districts, and that might include exploring new contracts.

“The school district has used the same contractors forever, the same hospitals, the same non-profits,” she said. “There are a lot of folks out there that did the work without the money to give the kids what they needed until they waited for those resources to come.”

Stanford, addressing Philadelphia School District Superintendent Tony Watlington directly on Monday during a panel discussion, added, “Find those places, because those folks are committed and did it without the funding.”
Child advocates, health providers, and Philadelphia school officials met Mon., Aug. 8, 2022 to discuss COVID-19’s impact and long-term consequences on the city’s students, including gaps in access to behavioral health services. (L to R) Tony Watlington, superintendent of the Philadelphia School District; Kimberly Ali, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services; and Dr. Ala Stanford, region director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Courtesy of Children First)

Watlington said his office plans to take a “hard look” at these concerns, including “who we’re coordinating with in terms of contractual services to ensure it’s not just the same people all the time to have a bigger tent, if you will.”

The superintendent said his office will be looking at putting together findings and recommendations for improvements and changes over the next 30 to 45 days.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or having a mental health crisis, dial 9-8-8 for the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.