COLUMBIA — House budget writers want to know the cost of putting mental health counselors in every public school.
The question came up when state Department of Mental Health director John Magill presented his agency’s budget request to a panel of House budget writers Wednesday.
Magill told the committee that with more money, he “would make sure there is at least some presence” of school-based mental health services “in every school district.”
State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the subcommittee, said Thursday the budget panel is exploring ways to expand mental health services, and school-based services are a “viable option.”
Having mental health professionals in schools could allow them to detect “early warning” signs of mental health issues in children, Smith said. “We feel like we’re probably on the front line of it if we can get into schools and identify problems early.”
The scope of mental health services nationally has become a point of debate since a gunman entered a school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children in December.
Last Monday, advocates for expanding mental health services statewide called for action from the Statehouse steps during the annual King Day at the Dome celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. More money for Mental Health would allow that agency to provide more preventive services in addition to crisis intervention, advocates say.
Mental Health employs 179 mental health counselors who work in 390 of the state’s more than 1,100 schools, said Geoffrey Mason, deputy director of the Division of Community Mental Health Services. Those counselors work in 194 elementary schools, 95 middle and junior high schools, 75 high schools and 26 alternative schools.
“We strongly believe in the success of these programs, and the outcome data has shown that they are very effective in early intervention and prevention, and allowing kids to continue to learn and stay in school,” Mason said.
Placing a mental health counselor in every public school would cost about $55 million a year, Mason said. But to serve every school would not require having a clinician in every school; some counselors could serve more than one school, as they do now.
That cost would be paid for by Mental Health and school districts, and Medicaid would reimburse some expenses, bringing the cost down, Mason said.
“We are working on determining how to most effectively use the state’s resources and provide services to kids,” he said.
A preliminary estimate shows that an additional $5 million would allow Mental Health to expand services into up to 50 percent of South Carolina schools, an increase from the 35 percent currently served.
School districts are asked to pay some of the cost of the counselors but not all can, Mason said. That means the amount the state contributes for the counselors – and which schools have counselors and which do not – varies widely from county to county.
Big cuts during recession
In proposing her 2013 executive budget shortly after the Newtown massacre, Gov. Nikki Haley said she wanted to expand mental health services in the state. To do that, Haley has proposed an additional $11.3 million for the Mental Health Department next year. This year, lawmakers allocated $18.7 million to the agency.
Some of Haley’s proposed increase would go to replace other money that Mental Health will no longer receive. For example, she has pledged state dollars to replace a grant no longer available to pay for the agency’s use of video conferencing to conduct psychiatric consultations in rural hospitals.
State Rep. Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, who is on the House budget panel, asked Magill last week whether his budget request or the governor’s recommendations would expand mental health services in the state. Specifically, Ott asked how many additional hospital beds would be available for mental health patients if the General Assembly grants the proposed budget increases.
Magill said increased funding would go to reopen beds that were closed by increasing the number of psychiatrists available to treat patients. Increasing mental health staff in emergency rooms also would divert patients who do not need ER services and allow more patients to get the treatment they need, he added.
Mental Health has suffered deep cuts.
Between 2008 and 2012, lawmakers cut the department’s budget by $70 million a year. The cuts were the largest to any state-run mental health agency in the country, according to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.