An alarming number of students find themselves in crisis mode—suffering from depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, stress, eating disorders, substance abuse, and bullying—on virtually a daily basis. This has dramatically increased the demand on school districts and secondary school principals, in particular, to address mental health issues at the secondary school level. Simply put, to be “fit to learn,” students need to be mentally healthy.

The Student Assistance Coordinator (formerly known as the Substance Awareness Coordinator and now often referred to as the Student Assistance Counselor, or SAC) can play a significant role in working cooperatively with the principal to address these issues. Therefore, the support extended to the SAC by the principal is essential to coordinating effective programs and emphasizing the importance of supportive counseling services.

SACs are a valuable resource not only for students, but for teachers, principals, and parents as well. They provide a variety of services to students and their families in a safe, comfortable, and professional setting. For these vulnerable students to meet with success, it is critical that the principal and SAC collaborate and implement programs that include social and emotional learning. Programs that educate, empower, and strengthen individual students, as well as the school community, can include assemblies, speakers, clubs, mentoring programs, peer leadership programs, classroom lessons, individual counseling, group counseling, and referrals to community agencies. 

Shared Among Schools

The SAC position is often shared among schools. In some districts, for example, a SAC may be at the middle school two days a week and at the high school three days a week. This not only gives the coordinator the opportunity to intervene and implement counseling services with younger students, but it also affords students the comfort of continued services, and it enables the principal to gain knowledge of kids’ prior mental health issues and interventions that may or may not have worked in the past.

The SAC is the primary counseling and intervention specialist in the schools and is trained to assist students in coping with emotional and behavioral issues. It is the counselor’s responsibility to remain up to date on current trends so he or she can better address critical issues and help students implement positive coping skills. Because of their unique training in the mental health field, they can effectively assess, intervene, and develop a course of action. SACs are often the eyes and ears of the school and work closely with teachers, the school counseling department (or guidance department), and administrators. It is these relationships that enable the SAC to more effectively oversee the district’s prevention and intervention policies when it comes to mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral issues (as they are often closely related to one another), and provide confidential counseling and referral services.

Parent Workshops 

The close collaboration between the principal and the SAC is the key to a successful student assistance program. In conjunction with the SAC, principals can offer appropriate parent workshops and also provide professional development to staff in the area of mental health. When the principal views the SAC office as a safe haven for students to visit throughout the day, the school climate benefits. Here, students can gain insight on personal issues and effectively manage their mood to avoid classroom disruptions, plus it ensures that the students’ needs are addressed by a trained professional. The SAC’s office should also afford students the opportunity to view prevention posters, fliers, and reading materials such as books and pamphlets to take with them to help when they’re faced with difficult situations.

Lastly, the principal’s collaboration with the SAC and the school counseling department can develop programs such as “Freshman Seminar” and/or “New Student Orientation” courses. Such programs should aim to prepare students academically for high school, give them information about the social support systems in place (tutoring, mentoring, peer leadership, clubs, activities, and athletics), provide hotline numbers and community resources, and most importantly, infuse social and emotional learning curricula. This multifaceted approach would assist students with a myriad of topics, such as character education, decision-making skills, anger management, bullying prevention, suicide prevention, and alcohol and drug prevention.

The goal for all educators should be student success, and that is more likely to be the result if both the principal and SAC share the same vision. This vision must incorporate mutual goals that can help students overcome the obstacles they face outside the classroom. These obstacles often include mental health issues that impact their ability to learn. When the principal and SAC communicate and collaborate effectively, the entire school community will reap the benefits and be able to achieve success.

Jacqueline Giordano, MA, is a student assistance counselor in the Woodbridge Township School District in New Jersey. 
Stacy Hale, MA, MEd, is a student assistance counselor with the Franklin Township School District in New Jersey.

Sidebar: Making It Work 

How principals and SACs can work together to address student mental health issues: 

  • Principals can support and encourage mental health programs and initiatives through student assemblies, clubs, activities, parent workshops, and professional development for staff.
  • Principals can encourage staff to think of the SAC office as a safe haven for students—a place where they are free to come and talk and a place to obtain helpful information and community resources.
  • Principals can use the SAC as a liaison for students who are returning from in-patient mental health facilities or mental health programs to establish a plan to help them reintegrate into the school setting.