An educational psychologist in Israel admits she was unable to help a fourth-grade student with suicidal thoughts recently, because he didn’t seem likely to do anything soon. Even worse, this is the standard response in an increasingly overburdened profession.
“In urgent cases you can refer them for a psychiatric evaluation,” said the psychologist, from the Sharon region in central Israel – and speaking to Haaretz on condition of anonymity. “If the child doesn’t have a plan of action, he comes back to us at the Educational Psychology Service. But we can’t help because of the overload.”
While wealthy parents can finance private treatment for their children, others must wait six months for an appointment at their health maintenance organization or a mental health clinic.
Educational psychologists in Israel have broad responsibilities compared to other countries. They can diagnose children with emotional or behavioral disorders; give initial treatment to children who have undergone trauma or are experiencing a crisis; advise parents about post-diagnosis treatment; advise teachers on how to handle diagnosed children; and advise principals on how to improve their school’s educational atmosphere.
But Education Ministry regulations, issued over a decade ago, allocate just one educational psychologist per 1,000 children in second through 12th grades, and one per 500 from preschool through first grade. Moreover, according to ministry data, only 68 percent of these positions are actually filled, so most educational psychologists are responsible for many more than 1,000 children.
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Schools in the Bedouin community are in the worst situation, with only 63 percent of positions filled.
The ministry revealed this data in response to a parliamentary question by MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union) and a freedom of information request by the Hatzlaha organization.
“There are many children and parents who need help, but the educational psychologist intervenes only in the most extreme cases,” said the psychologist from the Sharon region, who is responsible for two schools, 13 regular kindergartens and two special education kindergartens.
“Each of us can take on two or three cases for ongoing individual treatment, and that’s it,” she explained. “The chances that a child whose father dies in March will get treatment is nonexistent, because all the slots are already taken at the start of the year.”
Though educational psychologists are responsible both for treating children and advising parents, teachers and principals, most of their time is devoted to advising rather than treating individual children, due to their excess workloads. As a director of the Educational Psychology Service’s Central District explained (again, speaking on condition of anonymity), if forced to choose between an hour treating a child and an hour advising teachers, he said he would “obviously choose the latter – that helps more people.
“A principal once called and asked me to treat a first-grade girl suffering from anxiety,” he recalled. “It’s not dramatic, it’s quite common. But I look at my staff and have nobody who can take her.”
It was the same story for a family whose mother had passed away from illness. “It’s impossible to give up diagnosing or to stop treating someone else, so I tell them I know they need therapy but nobody’s free right now,” he said.
The ministry is aware of the problem and has tried to solve it by hiring 100 new educational psychologists each year for the past decade. But the Movement for Public Psychology in Israel says that even if all the available positions were filled, it wouldn’t be enough.
The movement argued that preventive work at the schools would save the state money down the line, and therefore the state should invest more in public psychological services. It also noted that talented people won’t want to become educational psychologists if they know they will be overworked and overburdened.
Nevertheless, the ministry doesn’t plan to increase the number of available positions; it merely seeks to fill those that remain empty.
Dr. Chava Friedman, head of the ministry’s educational psychology department, said more colleges train educational psychologists nowadays and she hopes this will at least enable the ministry to fill the vacant positions. But she also said that the need for educational psychologists has risen dramatically in recent years.
“We’re encountering many more cases of violence, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, and this means the children need us more than ever,” she said. “The parents and the educational system also need psychological tools in order to cope.”
Yet most educational psychologists are responsible for several schools and can devote at most one day a week to each, she acknowledged. Consequently, some children don’t get treated.
It’s hard to compare Israel’s ratio of students to educational psychologists to those in other countries, since the job definition varies from country to country (and Israel has one of the broadest). For instance, in the United States, an educational psychologist’s job is limited to diagnosing emotional disorders and autism, Friedman said.
The educational psychologist from the Sharon region said the children who are most likely not to get treatment are those who don’t make trouble.
“The children with behavioral problems, who throw chairs in class or run away from school, immediately leap out at the educational staff as people who need help,” she said. “The ones who don’t get help are the quiet kids with social anxiety who don’t bother anyone – because the psychologist doesn’t have time to observe the class. If the child isn’t disturbing it, the system won’t send him to the psychologist,” she added.
The director of the Educational Psychology Service’s Sharon District said all her district’s positions are in fact filled, but it still isn’t enough and psychologists are collapsing under the burden. “The job goes far beyond official working hours, and they’re also flooded in the afternoons and evenings – and sometimes on their days off as well,” she said. Moreover, according to several educational psychologists, they aren’t always paid for this overtime.
Their low base pay – about 40 shekels ($11) an hour – is another source of frustration. “The salary is ridiculous compared to the effort we put in and the working conditions, and there are psychologists who work as waiters to eke out a living,” said the psychologist from the Sharon area. Others simply quit and enter private practice.
“Personally, I’m making 35 shekels an hour in the system, after doing two degrees and a five-year residency,” she noted. “My salary is 10 times higher on the two days I work in a private clinic.”
But the most frustrating thing, she said, is that neither students nor parents seem to be aware that her job even exists. “I tell people to talk to the educational psychologist at their children’s school and they say, ‘We have no psychologist.’ They don’t know she exists, or think she isn’t really working – but she’s working hard. She simply isn’t managing to reach everyone.”
MK Yonah and Hatzlaha both said the solution was for the government to urgently increase its budget for educational psychologists.