S.C. now has 66% more mental health counselors in schools than one year ago

State leaders commended that turnaround, announced this week by Gov. Henry McMaster, but said...
State leaders commended that turnaround, announced this week by Gov. Henry McMaster, but said it needs to continue to address what they describe as a mental health crisis among South Carolina’s students.(WIS file)
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 8:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In just the last year, South Carolina has gone from more than half of its schools lacking access to mental health counselors to 80% of them now having that access.

State leaders commended that turnaround, announced this week by Gov. Henry McMaster, but said it needs to continue to address what they describe as a mental health crisis among South Carolina’s students.

“South Carolina has made remarkable progress over the last year enhancing student access to mental health services,” McMaster said in a statement. “However, our work is not done. We will continue to prioritize professional mental health counseling services for our students and look forward to seeing even more progress made in the coming years.”

At Batesburg-Leesville High School in Lexington County School District 3, Principal Sonya Bryant saw a rise in mental health needs among her students before the pandemic.

But once they returned from the shutdowns and remote learning, it was much worse, and those challenges have not gone away in the time since.

“There’s a greater need now than ever, and we are so fortunate to have someone who can serve those needs,” Bryant said.

For the first time, this past school year, Batesburg-Leesville High School had its own mental health counselor on staff, who spends three days a week at the high school and two days at the nearby primary school.

Before that hire, the district partnered with the Lexington County Mental Health Center to provide these services to students, but the county agency was stretched thin itself.

“There were many times when we would go without counselors,” Bryant said.

That was the situation most schools in South Carolina faced just a year ago, with students with mental health needs unable to receive the services they required on campus.

In January of 2022, Gov. Henry McMaster requested a full review of school mental health services, and last May, the director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported back that the lack of school-based counselors statewide was “unacceptable.”

That prompted changes last summer to give school districts more flexibility to hire counselors and increase reimbursement rates to make these jobs more competitive and appealing.

“Children are 21 times more likely to access a mental health service in a school setting than in another setting,” DHHS Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeff Leieritz said.

DHHS Director Robert Kerr sent a letter to McMaster this week, updating him on the progress made since those changes were implemented.

From last year to this year, there are nearly 400 more mental health counselors in South Carolina public schools, a 66% increase.

In that time, 118 more schools gained access to a counselor, and 80% of all schools in the state now have access to these services.

The number of districts where every school had access to mental health counseling increased from 35 in 2022 to 42 in 2023, out of 76 districts surveyed.

“Mental health is like a lot of other health conditions where, if you catch something earlier on, it’s easier to treat, the long-term prognosis is better, and the long-term outcome is better,” Leieritz said. “We really want to provide these counseling services in our schools to have our schools work as an early intervention system to hopefully mitigate mental health issues in students and in younger children before they continue to develop.”

Before the changes went into place last summer, the counselor-to-student ratio in South Carolina public schools was 1:1,300. It has now dropped to 1:829, but by the end of the year, DHHS aims to have it at 1:650, the equivalent of having a counselor in every school in South Carolina.

Eventually, the department wants to improve that ratio to 1:325.

Bryant said students’ mental health challenges won’t go away overnight.

But in just a year, she has seen a noticeable change.

“It’s about having that person you know is there and who can meet you where you are,” Bryant said. “I’ve seen students who were not coming to school as regularly as they should who are now here with us getting their education. I’ve seen kids whose grades improved. I’ve seen kids get involved in social activities here at school, extracurricular things, that they weren’t involved in.”

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