Spotlighting Stigma and Barriers: Examining Secondary Students’ Attitudes toward School Counseling Services

Added November 16, 2018

Despite the proven effectiveness of counseling for middle school and high school students, research has also identified a consistent reluctance on the part of many adolescents to seek and accept therapeutic help (e.g., Chandra & Minkovitz, 2006; Del Mauro & Williams, 2013).  An important step in delivering effective school counseling services in middle schools and high schools is to better understand the reasons why students may be reluctant to see their school counselor. The purpose of this study was to explore students’ attitudes about school counseling services and examine barriers that may prevent them from seeking those services. 

The study was carried out at 11 secondary schools in two Midwestern states, and included 3,584 students in grades 6–12. Students consistently cited the following reasons as the greatest barriers to seeking help from the school counselor: (a) “I would talk to a parent, friend, or teacher about this instead”; (b) “I like to handle this stuff on my own”; (c) “I don’t know my counselor well enough to talk about this”; and (d) “The counselor might tell someone what I said.”  Middle school students were much more likely than high school students to report meeting with the school counselor for a social-emotional reason (26.7% vs. 12.5%), while the opposite was true for academics (12.8% vs. 64.6%) and college/career planning (2.5% vs. 44.3%). 

When asked for reasons why they would seek out their school counselor, students responded with two general answers—either for help with minor task-oriented items such as changing a schedule, or, as a last resort, when their perceived safety is at risk or there is a feeling of crisis, such as when a friend has made suicidal comments. It seems clear that secondary students would prefer to solve all but the most serious problems on their own or with the help of a friend or family member before turning to a school counselor. While the exact reasons for this are unclear, two contributing factors could be concerns about confidentiality and a lack of rapport/relationship with the school counselor, both of which were consistently expressed in quantitative and qualitative responses. Other reasons identified by students for why they would not choose to see the school counselor included stigma associated with counseling, concerns about perceived counselor competence, and a preference for others or self as support. The most prevalent among these concerns was confidentiality; many students were clearly worried about their privacy and did not believe conversations with their school counselor would be kept confidential. 

Students repeatedly stated a desire for school counselors to be more visible in the school, more involved in students’ lives, and to intentionally reach out to students. Students also reported a desire to be informed about basic information regarding school counseling services, including the name of their counselor, how to schedule an appointment, and the services offered by the school counselor. Notably, many students stated that their school counselor was doing a good job and should not change a thing (examples: “Keep being awesome;” “I think they’re fantastic as it is”).

The results of this study point to the importance of school counselors acknowledging and addressing student concerns through outreach, relationship building, and education on the role of the school counselor. Confidentiality weighs especially heavily on the minds of adolescents and is not a simple issue to address given the complexities of balancing student trust and relationship with the counselor’s duty to disclose certain information when required by law or guided by professional ethics and decision making (Stone, 2017).  

It is important that school counselors address the barriers to seeking school counseling services identified in this study, especially since these findings were consistent with previous research on adolescent help-seeking behaviors. Educating students and staff on the role of the school counselor and building an advisory council are important.  It is also critical that school counselors work closely with their building-level administrator to ensure a shared vision for school counseling services and clear roles and responsibilities for the school counselor (ASCA, 2012; Mallory & Jackson, 2007).  Additional suggestions are provided in the full article.


Richard W. Auger, PhD, Nicholas R. Abel, PhD, Brandie M. Oliver, PhD