USC effort aims to help schools address student mental health


South Carolina schools struggling with unprecedented demand for youth mental health services will soon receive help from the University of South Carolina.

An innovative program designed by the USC School of Psychology will give teachers, school counselors and other school personnel access to a cadre of trained child mental health experts and behavioral health resources aimed at to help them better support student mental health in their schools.

Starting Monday, the School Behavioral Health Academy will offer online certificate programs in school behavioral health, provide one-on-one mental health coaching, and help build a school mental health community where teachers and the staff from across the state will be able to interact and share best practices.

“Over the next few months, this community will begin to build with the hope that districts can figure out how to make it work in their district given their unique circumstances with the support of expert coaches and also system peers, said Sam McQuillin, a USC psychology professor and co-director of the initiative.

The goal, he said, is to create a community of professional learning where districts with strong mental health support systems can offer guidance to districts where supports are less well established.

While leaders in many districts are keenly focused on addressing the learning challenges students are experiencing as a result of COVID-19-related school closures, fewer are tuned in to mental health and behavior issues. caused by the pandemic, said Mark Weist, co-director of the School Behavioral Health Academy.

“The kids had a tremendous academic slide…so the administrators, for a lot of them, are putting pressure on the academics, as they should be,” Weist said. “But we really need balance. We need school system leaders who embrace this balance and recognize the significant mental health needs of students that represent barriers to learning.

The School Behavioral Health Academy project is supported by a $3.2 million grant from the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which earlier this year audited the School Behavioral Health Academy program. state and is leading plans to improve and expand it.

The audit found South Carolina had just one mental health counselor for every 1,300 public school students — well below the industry ‘benchmark’ — and offered counseling services in less than half of the state’s public schools.

Director of Health and Human Services Robby Kerr said in a statement Wednesday that his partnership with the University of South Carolina will help the agency achieve its goal of “significantly improving” the counselor-to-student ratio. in South Carolina schools.

“The resources announced today will help better support schools as they integrate mental health services into their daily operations and, alongside SCDHHS’ efforts to engage more counselors to provide mental health services in schools across South Carolina, to support increased access to these vital services for children across the state,” he said.

Kerr’s agency, which sets Medicaid rates and is the primary payer for school-based counseling in the state, recently increased reimbursement rates for school-based counseling providers to encourage more districts to hire or to contract with mental health counsellors.

State Medicaid had previously paid private and district-employed providers less than half of what it paid Department of Mental Health clinicians for identical school counseling services.

As a result, districts have historically relied on DMH counselors, who are increasingly scarce and often have massive caseloads across multiple schools, which can prevent them from being available to students on demand in the event. of crisis.

By increasing reimbursement rates for non-DMH providers, districts now have more financial flexibility to hire their own mental health counselors at competitive salaries or contract with private counselors to provide school-based therapy.

Since the rate change took effect July 1, the number of districts reporting their intent to hire a counselor directly has more than doubled, from 14 to 30, HHS spokesman Jeff Leieritz said.

Health and Human Services hopes that by funding the School Behavioral Health Academy, it can better equip teachers and staff to respond to mental health issues and give districts the tools to integrate mental health counseling into their communities. schools, he said.

“It comes from a desire on our part to not just say, okay schools, you have more flexibility…go figure,” Leieritz said. “We wanted to provide resources that would help districts and down to the school level incorporate this into their daily lives.”

“Everyone plays a role”

One of the chronic problems the project seeks to address is the lack of collaboration and coordination between school mental health professionals and school staff.

Often, McQuillin said, information is lost because the adults interacting with the children don’t communicate with each other.

“Professionals in the school know a lot about children in certain ways that the counselor might not know and the counselor might know some specific things like traumatic experiences or particular challenges in working one-on-one with a child that providers school might not know or know how to handle,” he said. “One of the things we hope to see change is that counselors are not working in isolation with children, they are part of a larger team meeting the needs of students.”

To achieve this goal, McQuillin and Weist encourage all school employees to enroll in the School Behavioral Health Academy and encourage districts to use the platform.

The academy’s free course offerings, which are all online and self-paced, range from a broad overview of the crisis in youth mental health to more specialized courses primarily designed for trained mental health clinicians.

The aim is to distill best practice for all staff who interact with children, regardless of their specific role at school.

“Everyone is playing a role in responding to the child and adolescent mental health crisis,” said Weist, a USC psychology professor. “From our counselors and teachers to our community mentors and bus drivers.”

The academy courses, which last approximately eight hours, are intended to be interactive and engaging. Masters level coaches with experience in school mental health will be available to answer questions and help participants apply the concepts to meet the unique challenges in their districts.

The project also aims to facilitate peer support, so that employees from districts across the state can work together to share knowledge and address common challenges.

“You can almost think of it as a repository of learning opportunities,” McQuillin said. “The rubber will meet the road when you’re engaged in this professional community asking questions, solving problems with others, and then getting professional coaching for your individual district.”

The state Department of Education was not involved in developing the curriculum, but is nonetheless excited about the opportunities it presents, said Suzanne Snyder, mental health program manager at the agency.

Snyder this week sent district administrators and school mental health coordinators a memo announcing the initiative and explaining its benefits.

“This is an opportunity for all school staff to be trained in mental health around trauma-informed crisis intervention which hopefully will really help students and school staff,” she said.

Zak Koeske is a political and government reporter for The State. Prior to joining The State in 2020, Zak covered education, government and policing issues in the Chicago area. He has also written for publications in his hometown of Pittsburgh and the New York/New Jersey area.


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