Charleston Co. School District struggles to provide enough mental health professionals

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 2:22 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2021 at 6:19 PM EST
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School District is severely understaffed when it comes to mental health professionals. During a presentation on Monday, staff laid out the need for these professionals and how they plan to address the needs.

District officials say there is one school psychologist for every 1,100 students.

The national standard is one for every 500 students. Jennifer Coker, executive director of alternative programs and services, says they are not even close when it comes to social workers with just 15 on staff. She says the recommended ratio is one for every 500 students.

The lack of mental health services is concerning for parents like Amy Hills.

“Do they need standardized testing, no. What they need is a place where they can feel safe, to express their emotions, where they can be given the language and the tools that they need so they can connect to each other,” Hills said. “My kids go to an amazing school. We are lucky to be there. They have a lot of mental health people on campus, we are lucky, but it’s still not enough.”

The lack of providers is compound by an increase in demand for services. Coker says suicide assessments in schools are up 45% across the district, while assessments of threats to others and to buildings are up over 50% this year.

“We are seeing that on average 37% of teens ages 15-19, say the pandemic has worsened their mental health, and this is a problem we need to do more about to ensure we are putting our kids back on track,” said Karolyn Belcher, chief academic officer.

Plans are already in place to make some accommodations. In September, the district was awarded a $1 million grant from MUSC and Boeing to help students battling anxiety and depression. They are also using ESSER money to bring in temporary staff and are working on long term solutions to get more professionals on the payroll.

“The challenge is there are limits to how many mental health professionals are actually available,” Belcher said. “Right now, 42.02% of South Carolinians live in a mental health professional shortage area and that includes here in Charleston County.”

Chairman of the school board Reverend Eric Mack says this is an issue the district needs to address as soon as possible. The industry standard for counselors to students in elementary schools is one to 800. That number is one to 300 for middle and high schools. It’s unclear what CCSD’s ratio is right now, but Mack believe the ratio should be even smaller.

“We cannot afford to lose any students through the cracks,” Mack said. “I think a school of 800 students should have at least four counselors minimum. If we are truly trying to reach the students and we’re really trying to work with families and trying to form that relationship, one person will be overwhelmed.”

Hills believe the problem will only get worse if the district doesn’t get serious about addressing mental health.

“We are making our way through the pandemic and I feel like this is the next national crisis – the mental health of our teenagers and our preteens and it has to be addressed,” Hills said.

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