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School mental health counselors: How state agencies are working to increase accessibility to resource

The number of in-school mental health counselors has increased 65% in the past year, meaning there's one counselor for every 829 students, the Governor's Office says

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Post-COVID isolation, social media, bullying and violence overall has our children dealing with a lot for their ages. 

This concern has parents, national, state and local leaders looking at ways to help them adjust and prioritize mental health. Schools throughout the state are making progress.

Today, word from the Governor's office shows South Carolina has seen a 65% increase in the number of mental health counselors in schools in one year. In 2022, there was one counselor for every 1,300 students. Now in 2023, there is approximately one counselor for every 829 students, the Governor's office says.

118 schools gained access to mental health counselors in the past year, granting 42 districts access to mental health counseling in each school. This means nine districts now have access to this resource that did not have access before 2023.

"We’ve made really great progress over the past year, but we’re still not where we want to be," Jeff Leieritz with the Department of Health and Human Services explains. "Before the pandemic, we had already seen trends in anxiety, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, suicides themselves among children, school-age children in the state. And it’s a national trend as well. The pandemic certainly put more pressure and different kinds of pressure, it through off norms, it through off norms, it made things more difficult in a lot of ways socially, so that exacerbated that need."

The department is making progress on getting more mental health counselors in schools across the state through analyzing data from the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Education.

"We found that students are 21 times more likely to access a mental health service in a school than in another setting and a lot of those are because of transportation, not having to work with transportation, not needing to have a parent take off of work potentially to take their child to a 3 o' clock appointment," Leieritz says.

To help get more counselors in schools, Leieritz says this time last year, DHHS increased reimbursement rates to get higher starting salaries for mental health counselors. It also allowed school districts to find counselors from outside of the state’s department of mental health, allowing for more flexible hiring.

"I’m not trained in talking people out of committing suicide, I’m not trained in addiction, I’m not trained in all that and nor do I want to me," Sherry East, a biology teacher in Rock Hill, shares. "We’ve seen an increase in the need for mental health counselors. Teachers are just getting more and more things getting put on their plate and students are coming to school with  a lot more issues than they used to."

East is also the president of the South Carolina Education Association. She says more counselors need to be trained to deal specifically with mental health issues, which University of South Carolina professor Jonathan Ohrt helps with.

"Now school counselors focus on everything across holistically for the students. Academics, career, but also their social emotional wellbeing, crisis intervention and mental health," Ohrt shares. "Having people who are really well trained and interested and enthusiastic about helping is really important and it really does start at the training level."

"I’ve always loved working with kids. I was a youth cheerleading coach, I was a summer camp counselor. I love working with kids. They’re so fun," first-year masters student Ansley Rabon explains. "And I’ve always been passionate about mental health and in my undergrad sort of culminated into an interest in working with kids specifically with mental health, particularly in schools and meeting them where they’re at."

Rabon is hoping to become a mental health counselor to meet the growing need as kids recover from social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust to social media.

"People struggle as adults and that doesn’t mean that it’s isolated to struggling as an adult. You can struggle at any point in life and at any point in life you may need help," Rabon shares. "As much as we like to think that we protect our kids and that the things that happen in our outside world don’t affect them, that’s not necessarily true and they need support as well. And the best way to do that I think is to meet them where they are and where they are is school." 

Seeing students like Rabon training to become mental health counselors gives mothers like Mechell Williams confidence.

"It makes me feel, you know, I have a grandchild on the way, that they’ll be support and if they have needs, they'll be met," Williams says. "It’s definitely a need for it."

"Mental health counseling within the school setting is extremely important," Therapist Benita Robinson agrees. "Mental health is just like any other disease. It is a disease. It’s no different."

The Department of Health and Human Services says it will continue to monitor how often these counselors are being utilized through surveys, and will continue its effort to see even more counselors in schools.

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