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SC launches new program to support student mental health amid counselor shortages

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) — At a time when experts say America’s children are facing a mental health crisis, a report earlier this year found that more than half of South Carolina public schools do not did not have access to a licensed counsellor.

As the state implements longer-term solutions to address this issue through the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the issue is urgent, particularly following a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen anxiety, depression, mental health issues surfacing among public school students, not just in South Carolina but across the country, at a rate that has not existed before, at a significantly higher pace,” said the DHHS chief strategic officer. Communications Jeff Leieritz said.

Earlier this year, Governor Henry McMaster called for a statewide audit of mental health services available in South Carolina schools. The audit — conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which sets Medicaid reimbursement rates for these school services — found there was one counselor for about 1,300 students, which the DHHS director said , Robbie Kerr, called “unacceptable” in his letter to McMaster, presenting the findings of the review in May.

Leieritz said his goal is to halve the ratio from 1 to 1,300 over the next year and then halve again in subsequent years.

DHHS believes a new program, funded by a two-year state grant and developed by the University of South Carolina’s psychology department, will help more students meet their health needs. health as South Carolina works to increase access to resources and counselors.

The John H. Magill School of South Carolina Behavioral Health Academy will soon be available to all South Carolina public school staff, from teachers to principals to food services.

It’s online and self-paced, with lessons covering topics like prevention, early intervention, classroom support and how they can help their school through the mental health crisis.

“We know that the more mental health issues students have, the more they tend to get worse, and then you see corollary issues, like school attendance issues, maybe discipline issues, increased likelihood to fall behind, maybe fail a year.” Mark Weist, professor of clinical, community, and school psychology at USC.

The initial introductory class lasts 90 minutes, while subsequent classes last six to eight hours, Weist said, the latest on treatment and more intensive intervention aimed at counseling staff and special educators.

While the program is available to all interested staff, it’s optional, as Leieritz said they’re not looking to put more on teachers’ plates or replace licensed counselors with other school staff.

However, he said teachers and staff have stepped in to help their students, so they want to equip them with the tools they need if they do.

“We found in our audit that too often there was a student who was in crisis, a mental health crisis, and because there was no mental health counselor available at that school, you had the teacher or the vice-principal or the principal or the nurse or the support staff who cared for the child in mental health crisis,” Leieritz said. “That’s not what they’re educated for, what they’re trained for. This is not the ideal situation.

Weist said they will also work more intensively under the program with 12 districts – three each in the Pee Dee, Lowcountry, Midlands and Upstate. Two districts are piloting the first module of the course this week, and the program could be available to staff across South Carolina as early as next week.

The DHHS audit also found that students are more than 20 times more likely to access mental health services inside schools than outside.

Weist added that strong youth mental health programs can boost student success in all areas of their lives.

“The sooner we provide an effective intervention, the more effective it will be,” Weist said.

Other recommendations from the audit to address the shortage of counselors have already taken effect, including an adjustment to Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Most school counselors in the state are employed by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, and the audit found that the system is in place to encourage schools to use these counselors.

The old Medicaid reimbursement rate that DMH-registered counselors receive, $77 for a half-hour session, was more than double the $37 rate that a private provider had received.

In July, the department eliminated those rate disparities, believing that giving schools more freedom and choice in hiring private counselors will help increase access to services.

Among other recommendations, Principal Kerr advised using telehealth to increase access to services and considering a three-year phased introduction to require school counselors to be fully licensed.

Although this is already a requirement for private counselors who work in schools, DMH counselors are excluded from the requirement.

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