SC working to boost school mental health services, as more than half of schools lack counselor access

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Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 9:51 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 17, 2022 at 11:29 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - At a time when state leaders on both sides of the aisle say access to mental health services in schools is more important than ever, South Carolina is struggling to keep up with a growing need.

A recent audit found most of the state’s public schools lack access to a counselor, and critical services like crisis counseling are even scarcer.

Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order earlier this year, requesting that audit into school mental health services, and it was completed by the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which sets Medicaid reimbursement rates for these services.

According to DHHS, schools are facing a two-pronged issue: The need for mental health services among students continues to grow, while the number of counselors available them has fallen.

“When you’re talking about a crisis with children, you’re talking about a crisis today, but you’re talking about a crisis that affects the future of the state,” DHHS Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeff Leieritz said.

The statewide audit found mental health services are currently available in fewer than half of South Carolina’s public schools at a ratio of one counselor for roughly every 1,300 students, which DHHS Director Robbie Kerr called “unacceptable” in his letter to McMaster, presenting the review’s findings.

“Our goal is to cut that ratio in half over the next year, and then eventually cut that in half again,” Leieritz said, adding their goal is to have a counselor in every school in the state.

Most of the state’s school-based counselors are employed through the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, and the audit found the system is set up to incentivize schools to use these counselors.

The current Medicaid reimbursement rate that DMH-enrolled counselors receive, of $77 for a half-hour session, is more than double the $37 rate a private provider receives.

DHHS believes giving schools more freedom and choice to hire private counselors will help increase access to services, Leieritz said.

Among Kerr’s recommendations to improve these services, the department plans to eliminate those rate disparities, with increased rates for non-DMH counselors set to go into effect July 1.

“There are counselors out there now that could provide that service but don’t because of that rate disparity,” Leieritz said.

It also recommends using telehealth to increase access to services and considering a three-year phase-in to require school counselors be fully licensed.

While that is already a requirement for private counselors who work in schools, DMH counselors are excepted from the requirement.

The audit also found the need for immediate crisis services is rising at schools.

But those services can be hard to come by, with counselors so stretched thin already, especially if they work in multiple schools, oftentimes leaving untrained teachers and school staff to respond.

DHHS hopes by increasing the number of counselors overall, it can free up more of them to handle crisis situations.

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