COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — Officials said schools throughout the Palmetto State have a new way to prepare teachers and other staff to support student mental health.

Wednesday morning, psychology faculty at the University of South Carolina launched the John H. Magill SC School Behavioral Health Academy (SBHA).

According to officials, the SBHA will offer continuing education for school districts, mental health providers, and other youth-serving agencies across the state. Officials say this new academy is designed to help schools respond to the unprecedented need for mental health services among youth.

It will help provide support for students while the state works to increase resources.

Project Director Dr. Mark Weist said the learning system is a mix of online and in-person instruction. Experts from UofSC will coach and assist schools in adopting practical, science-based approaches to support schools in improving mental health of students.

“The child and adolescent mental health crisis, which has progressively worsened since it was announced by Surgeon General Satcher in 2000, reached a sort of crescendo in the lingering wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” said project Co-Director, Dr. Samuel McQuillin.

Officials say the SBHA will offer two online certificate programs in School Behavioral Health, and the academy will tailor content to the roles and needs of learners, even those who are not formal mental health providers. “Everyone plays a part in responding to the child and adolescent mental health crisis, from our counselors and teachers to our community mentors and bus drivers,” said Dr. Weist.

The SBHA is supported by a $3.2 million grant from the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (SCDHHS). This new academy is in addition to recent policy changes implemented by the SCDHHS. Officials say that includes dedicating more funding to paying and hiring school-based mental health counselors, designed to increase the number of mental health counselors supporting South Carolina schools.

Earlier this year, SCDHHS said there was a mental health counselor available for every 1,300 students. Their hope is to cut that ratio in half and then in half again in the future.

SCDHHS Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeff Leieritz said their review of mental health resources in schools found children are 21 times more likely to access mental health services in schools than in any other setting.

SCDHHS’ school-based mental health services initiative, which was formally launched earlier this year, allows schools greater flexibility in delivering mental health services in school settings.

“Our partnership with the university, along with the increased funding we have committed that will support raising the salaries of school-based mental health counselors, will help us achieve our goal of drastically improving the ratio of counselors to students in South Carolina schools,” said SCDHHS Director Robby Kerr. “The resources announced today will help to better support schools as they integrate mental health services into their day-to-day operations; and, along with SCDHHS’ efforts to incentivize more counselors to provide mental health services in South Carolina schools, support increased access to these vital services for children across the state.”

The SBHA will train personnel in creating safe schools, responding to crises, science-based approaches to counseling, and whole-school approaches to preventing mental health and behavioral problems, among many other topics.

The SBHA’s certificate program and professional coaching will help ensure that these changes are grounded in best practices and that every provider has access to professional development. Dr. Weist noted that training experiences and coaching will evolve based on the preferences and needs of South Carolina communities, which are being assessed through a statewide needs assessment.

For more information or if you’re a school employee and would like to register click or tap here.