S.C. schools make strides in boosting access to counselors

In the past year, South Carolina has gone from more than half of its schools lacking access to mental health counselors to 80% having it.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 6:36 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - In just the past year, South Carolina has gone from more than half of its schools lacking access to mental health counselors to now 80% of them having it.

It’s a turnaround state leaders say needs to continue – to address what they describe as a mental health crisis among students.

The principal at Batesburg-Leesville High School says she was seeing a rise in mental health struggles among her students before the pandemic.

But once students came back from the shutdowns and remote learning, it was much worse.

And those challenges haven’t gone away.

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

For the first time, this past school year, Batesburg-Leesville High School had its own mental health counselor on staff – whom it shares with the nearby primary school.

Before, the district partnered with the county mental health center – but they were stretched thin themselves.

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

That was the situation in most schools in South Carolina just a year ago.

In January 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 the shortage of counselors statewide – was “unacceptable.”

That prompted changes last summer -- giving school districts more flexibility to hire counselors – and increasing 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,” said Jeff Leieritz of the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Now there are nearly 400 more mental health counselors in South Carolina public schools compared to last year – a 66% increase.

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

Every school has access – in more than half the state’s districts today.

“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.

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

But in just a year – she’s seen more students show up for class, improve their grades – and get involved in ways she hadn’t seen before.

“It’s about having that person you know is there and can meet you where you are,” she said.

The state says more work still needs to be done – and Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to continue prioritizing student mental health services.