Colleges looking to meet demand for mental health professionals

Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 4:32 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2022 at 6:29 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A shadow pandemic is looming in the background of the headlines dominated by positivity rates, death counts and latest economic disruptions. The last two years have tested and exposed the weaknesses in almost every system in our society, including the need for mental health services.

“I think mental health is being considered what’s called a shadow pandemic,” said Elizabeth Wofford, Clinical Counseling Director at Charleston Southern University. “One person has heart issues. One person has lung issues. One person has other things, but not as many people are aware of the mental health piece. It absolutely can have mental health side effects between the brain fog and all of that and so, the mental health needs are not always getting connected to COVID and people aren’t necessarily getting in and getting help sooner.”

Nowhere has the need for mental health professionals become more apparent than in schools.

In the Charleston County School District behavioral issues have shot up, suicide assessments have climbed nearly 50 percent and more than a third of students say the pandemic has made their mental health worse.

With millions of dollars in ESSER funds and proposals calling for counselors in every school, the district says it wants to hire more mental health professionals, but there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates in the area to hire.

Wofford says the demand for graduates is extremely high right now and there are a lot of options.

“Many of them are looking into doing private practice, and the second that they open that door, they have referrals for sure,” Wofford said. “Getting the clinical mental health people into the schools has been a bit bigger of a process. We haven’t really partnered much with the public schools, but I would love to see if that’s possible.”

She says they do have some interns working in private schools but says breaking into public schools has additional barriers.

“Generally, because therapy with a minor requires parental consent and, in many cases, parental involvement. So in the public school setting, it’s harder to get parents involved. You can send out a consent form, but if parents aren’t really involved, our treatment is going to be limited,” Wofford said, noting it’s also more difficult to integrate full counseling sessions into the typical public school day. “To get into a school you would need somebody on the school side dedicated to make it happen. I know a lot of practitioners who would love to.”

The good news is enrollment in clinical counseling has more than tripled since the university started offering the degree in 2018 from 14 masters students to more than 50 this year.

Growth is expected to continue and CSU is working on new ways to pump out graduates to meet demand.

“We’re looking at how to make work a digital delivery track. Our accrediting body that we’re pursuing has recognized this shift in the field in the last few years that a lot of people want to go into mental health, but the online programs are either not as good or not as accessible,” Wofford said. “No commitments yet, but we want to know if that’s possible because that would open the doors to a whole lot more people that couldn’t necessarily get to an in-person classroom.”

CCSD has had luck in recent months finding some news mental health staff. Since December they’ve hired one new social worker, two clinical counselors and three school counselors.

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