Colleges seek to meet demand for mental health professionals

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) — A phantom pandemic looms in the background of headlines dominated by positivity rates, death tolls and the latest economic disruption. The past two years have tested and exposed the weaknesses of almost every system in our society, including the need for mental health services.

“I think mental health is seen as what’s called a phantom pandemic,” said Elizabeth Wofford, director of clinical counseling at Charleston Southern University. “A person has heart problems. A person has lung problems. A person has other things, but not as many people know about mental health. It can absolutely have mental health side effects between brain fog and all of that and so mental health needs aren’t always connected to COVID and people don’t necessarily come in and get help more early.

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

In the Charleston County School District, behavioral issues have increased, suicide ratings have climbed nearly 50%, and more than a third of students say the pandemic has worsened their mental health.

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 just aren’t enough qualified candidates in the area to hire.

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

“A lot of them are considering going into private practice, and the second they open that door, they’ve got referrals for sure,” Wofford said. “Bringing the clinical mental health specialists into the schools was a bit more of a process. We haven’t really partnered with public schools, but I’d like to see if that’s possible.

She says they have interns who work in private schools, but says breaking into public schools presents additional hurdles.

“Generally, because therapy with a minor requires parental consent and, in many cases, parental involvement. So, in the context of public schools, it is more difficult to involve parents. You can send in a consent form, but if the parents aren’t really involved, our treatment will be limited,” Wofford said, noting that it’s also more difficult to fit full counseling sessions into the typical day at school. a public school. “To get into a school, you would need someone on the side of the school dedicated to making it happen. I know many practitioners who would like that.

The good news is that enrollment in clinical counseling has more than tripled since the university began offering the degree in 2018, growing from 14 master’s students to more than 50 this year.

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

“We seek to make work a digital delivery channel. Our accrediting body that we pursue has recognized this shift in the field over the past few years that a lot of people want to get into mental health, but online programs aren’t as good or not as accessible,” said Woford. “No commitments at this time, but we want to know if this is possible as it would open the doors to many more people who might not necessarily be able to access an in-person classroom.”

The CCSD has been fortunate over the past few months to find new mental health staff. Since December, they have hired a new social worker, two clinical counselors and three school counsellors.

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