March 5, 2014

Mental Health wants $1 million for more SC school counselors

The S.C. Department of Mental Health is asking lawmakers for $1 million more to expand a program, about 20 years old, that puts mental-health counselors in public schools. The boost would pay for 40 more counselors, reach 62 additional schools, and serve 1,900 more students, agency officials said.

Yancy Harling, a mental health counselor in the Richland 2 school district, helped a kindergartener with anger issues go from nearly being “put out of school” to honing her art skills and getting on track to earn a high-school diploma.

Without counseling, Harling said, students like that girl are at risk for dropping out, getting expelled or, worse, winding up in the juvenile justice system.

With the help, she said, “Kids stay in school. Whatever the issue is, the child is anxious or distracted, those kind of things interfere less with their learning, which causes less stress, which helps them to be healthier.”

Now, the state Department of Mental Health is asking lawmakers to increase its budget by $1 million to expand a roughly 20-year-old program that puts mental-health counselors, like Harling, in public schools.

The increase would pay for 40 more counselors, bringing the total to 284, and would reach 62 additional schools, or 523 total – 42 percent of the state’s public schools. The program also could reach 1,900 more students, bringing the total to more than 15,000 – about 2 percent of the state’s public school students, agency officials said.

Mental Health received an additional $1 million to expand the program last year, when lawmakers were debating student safety after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. The mental health community quickly joined in the debate, highlighting existing programs hit by recession-era budget cuts. Mental Health’s budget, for example, was cut by $93 million – or 42 percent – from 2008 to 2012.

The annual cost for a counselor is about $50,000, said Geoff Mason, deputy director for community mental health services. That cost sometimes is shared between Mental Health and a school district. But some districts need counselors and cannot share the cost, so the department ends up covering it entirely.

While state House budget writers and Gov. Nikki Haley have recommended increases to Mental Health’s funding this year, those dollars largely would go toward sustaining existing levels of service, not to expand programs like in-school counseling, the agency’s director, John Magill, told a Senate budget panel Wednesday.

“A lot of the children that get identified (for treatment) are those that wouldn’t necessarily get identified in any other venue,” he said, adding students that receive treatment in school are more likely to stick with the program.

Bill Lindsey, state executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said the in-school counseling program provides the type of early interventions that help prevent people with mental-health issues from ending up in the justice system or in the “back-up in the hospitals.”

Mimi Meyer, a mental-health counselor who has worked for five years in the Lexington 2 school district, said she has seen “clients that need to belong, need to matter, and might have some aggression or violence (in) how they’re struggling to work through their issues.”

“Having a mental health counselor creates at least a safety net that would deeply affect their decisions to use violence at school” and could prevent it, she said. “If every school had these resources available, it has to have an impact.”

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