Deming schools hire outside counselors to narrow mental health care gap

One rural district’s efforts to improve access to care in a challenging time


Brianda Alirdz was fine coping with the COVID-19 pandemic up until the virus finally caught up to her during her 2021 Christmas break.

The 18-year-old was a senior at Early College High School in Deming, when the Southern New Mexico Collaborative spoke to her in December 2022. At the time, she was taking Western New Mexico University courses through its dual credit program and held a 3.9 GPA. Students like Alirdz take honors classes for their first two years, then take college-level courses for the following two years, allowing them to graduate with two diplomas from Early College High School and an associate’s degree from Western New Mexico University.

The virus and its effects took a toll on her mental health and well-being.

“My anxiety was very heightened because being away from everybody for so long, it was a lot.

And COVID affected my smell and my taste; it still hasn’t gotten completely normal … Like

Coke, still doesn’t taste the same,” she said.

Thanks to federal pandemic relief funding, the Deming Public Schools, to better serve students’ mental health needs, tried something it hasn’t done before. In 2022, the district contracted with an outside company to expand by 33% the number of licensed counselors available to students. At no cost to their families, students are able to access increased mental health support through bilingual counselors, important in a high-poverty district on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The increased counseling capacity edges Deming Public Schools closer to meeting a nationally accepted counselor-to-student ratio that correlates to improved student outcomes. But the district will have to find another source of funding for the project, given that its pandemic relief funds run out after the spring semester.

Youth struggling nationwide & in NM

Alirdz was not alone in expressing concerns about her mental health. Data from several sources shows youth have struggled in recent years. In 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 42 percent of high schoolers nationwide felt a sense of hopelessness. The data comes from a 10-year survey from 2011 to 2021, titled Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which studied trends on health behavior and experiences among high schoolers. Female students, LGBQ+ students, students with same-sex partners, and students who are of multi races and or Hispanic struggled more with sadness and hopelessness than other groups.

In 2020, nearly 1 million children ages 11 to 17 took an online screening through the nonprofit Mental Health America, nearly a 630 percent increase over 2019. Throughout the pandemic, that age group has been “more likely than any other age group to score for moderate-to-severe symptoms of anxiety and depression than any other age group,” according to MHA.

New Mexico ranked 34th among states for youth mental health, according to a 2023 report by Mental Health America. The ranking, based upon 2019-20 data, stems from both the prevalence of mental illness and how much access youth have to care. A relatively high percentage of New Mexico youth – nearly 8% – have a substance use disorder.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which, starting in March 2020, forced students to stay home for distance learning because of lockdown protocols, didn’t help matters in Southern New Mexico, school officials said. Students have faced a range of mental health challenges, including suicidal thoughts and addiction, according to DPS.

“Many of our students lost loved ones while being isolated. As a rural, high-poverty district, many of our students receive most of their mental health support in school, and, while our counselors and staff met with students virtually during the pandemic, it was much easier to not know when our students were facing difficulties because of the remote setting,” Deming Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Chávez stated.

Alirdz noted her friends and classmates had a difficult time managing the stress of the pandemic.

“Some of my friends’ parents and grandparents got sick, and they were worried because they

were more prone to dying from it, so they were really scared,” Alirdz said.

Alirdz graduated and started college at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales, New Mexico last August. She is determined to get her degree in forensic science.

Contracting with an outside company

Enrollment in DPS is about 5,200 students, according to the district’s website. But there is no clear evidence of how many of the school system’s youth were impacted by mental health problems before and after the pandemic. Robin Parnell, deputy superintendent of learning services for Deming Public Schools, told the Southern New Mexico Collaborative that DPS counselors are not required to report how many students have sought mental health services, compared to other types of assistance. The district doesn’t have a case management program that would make tracking such data easier, but it’s in the process of getting one, she said.

“Some meetings are very informal, and some aren’t, but of course all those counselors’ notes and meetings are confidential,” Parnell said.

In spring 2022, DPS first contracted with the Las Cruces-based Sol Counseling and Wellness Center to supplement the district’s licensed counseling staff because of “increased emergency need that arose because of COVID-19,” according to a copy of the contract obtained by SNMJC. That fall, the district then issued a Request for Proposals bid process to extend its external counseling support. Sol Counseling was among four companies to respond and was selected as the top-ranked.

During a school board meeting in December 2022, DPS approved a second contract with Sol. In this agreement, three mental health providers and a clinical director were tasked to “provide culturally sensitive, holistic, and quality care to a diverse community” in-person or via Zoom.

Closing the mental health care gap

Schools across the country are experiencing shortages in licensed counselors and are opting to use outside resources to address increased rates of poor mental health among students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per licensed counselor. But many schools are falling far short of that. The national average was 408 students to 1 counselor, while New Mexico’s rate was even worse: 444 to 1 for the school year 2021-22.

Without the added capacity from Sol, DPS staffs 12 licensed counselors among its 10 schools, according to numbers provided by the district. That means, based upon the district’s enrollment, it has a ratio of 433 students per counselor. With the four extra counselors from Sol, the needle moves in the right direction, reaching a ratio of 325 students per counselor. But it still doesn’t drop down to the ideal ratio of 250 to one; 21 counselors would be needed to reach that level. (In high-poverty districts like Deming, there may need to be even more counselors for a given student population.)

Staff with Sol Counseling are available in the district three days per week in-person and available on Zoom other days, according to DPS. A district official said not having in-person support the whole week is a limitation of the initiative. Face-to-face counseling has been more useful to younger students than virtual visits.

“For the older students, you know, some of them prefer to meet on Zoom,” Parnell said. “But it's just harder for our younger students.”

The district is tracking the numbers of students served by the outside company.

“This is for the month of October: They had 14 new referrals, they had 68 sessions, they had 11 cancellations and 39 pending services,” Parnell said.

In November 2022, the school district requested proposals from companies throughout the U.S. that could provide districtwide mental health services. The district received four proposals: two providers located in Florida, TrueCare24 and SunBelt; Presence from New York; and Sol Counseling and Wellness Center from Las Cruces. During the district’s evaluation, Sol Counseling ranked the highest, in part because of its ability to offer face-to-face counseling with students at school.

“When we first went out to RFP (request for proposals), there were several companies that reached out, but Sol Counseling was the only one that was willing to come in in-person,” Parnell said. “So that's one big thing, you know, having that in-person.”

According to documents obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the district in December 2022 entered a 4-year contract (2022-26) with Sol Counseling and agreed to pay counselors and fees at a flat rate of $600 a day, in-person or via Zoom, up to $60,000 per school year. Besides appointments, the pay includes mileage, clinical documentation, screenings and meetings with parents and/or staff.

For more specialized or intensive treatment, school counselors can send referrals to other outside counseling agencies like Ben Archer, Presbyterian Medical Services, Winborn Wellness & Counseling, Amanecer and La Pinon, but the student’s parents or insurance provider must cover the cost, if any.

Seventeen percent of DPS’ student population are under an individualized education program or an individualized service, which guide how the district serves students with various disabilities and special needs. Those can include needs related to mental health; students in this category were eligible to receive mental health services even before Sol Counseling was hired. But having the agency on board opens the door for more students, even those without an IEP, to access one-on-one counseling in a timely manner.

District personnel meet regularly with Sol Counseling’s clinical director to review “what is working well and what are some of the barriers we have to overcome,” Parnell said.

“Like some limitations within this contract have been not having them in-person five days a week,” she said. “That’s been a struggle. … (W)hen there's a crisis situation, you know – having them (counselors) there is always beneficial. I mean, it's much, much easier to provide those services versus online.”

Overcoming barriers to care

While the extra capacity does move Deming schools closer to the national standard for the counselor-to-student ratio, the full impact of the initiative is difficult to gauge, due to the district’s lack of data about students’ mental health and how students use counseling services. District officials say the added capacity has allowed them to better serve students.

Anna Lopez, owner and clinical supervisor of Sol Counseling, said the agency’s counselors, working with DPS, have helped students overcome many barriers to accessing care.

“Students have all been eligible to receive quality mental health services without having to face common challenges like transportation, limited or no insurance coverage, time away from school, language barriers, or what is commonly seen in rural areas, just overall lack of access to services due to limited mental health resources in the area,” she said in an emailed response.

Still, Lopez said there have been plenty of “learning moments for our agency” in the program.

“That meant that a lot of processes and procedures that are now in place were developed with the support of DPS staff and the feedback from the mental health providers working at these schools,” she said. “Overall, I believe that we have earned the trust of the students, the staff and the community, as our services continue to be requested.”

The district has a four-year contract in place with Sol. However, the district’s rescue funds for the project will run out by June of this year. DPS is hoping state lawmakers will OK funding to continue hiring outside counselors. Otherwise it will have to look to other sources.

“There's so many, so many things that have to be considered (in the budget),” Parnell said. “And of course, you know our students' well-being is definitely the priority. But just looking at all the funding sources, if we can just talk to our legislators and make sure they're funding schools adequately, and you know, taking into consideration the needs and how things have changed since COVID.”

Lopez said she’s not received any word from the district that the four-year contract could be cut short due to lack of funding, and Sol is “committed to serving the four years stipulated in the contract.

“We have amazing communication with the district so I am sure that if funding becomes an issue, it will be communicated to us,” she said in an email.

The federal government could be a possible source of grants going forward. President Biden’s Unity Agenda, a four-part call to action to some of the nation’s health epidemics, aims to lower depression, hopelessness and suicide rates especially among youth. The plan calls for federal agencies to award a total of $206 million dollars to mental health programs throughout the country. This includes $131.7 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to support at-risk youth and families; $55 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration for expanding access to youth mental health care; and $20 million from The Administration of Children and Families to launch the first national center to support mental health services in the Child Welfare System in Virginia.

Xchelzin Peña is a journalist based in Las Cruces who’s working with the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative to cover pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For info, visit or Diana Alba Soular, SNMJC project editor, contributed to this report.