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Schools need better mental health care, urge experts

COLUMBIA - Providing school children with better mental health services could save lives and money, said Bill Lindsey, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of South Carolina.
During a meeting of a school safety panel Thursday, he briefed legislators on efforts in Minnesota, which he said has placed a mental health counselor in every school, allowing professionals to intervene early when children need help. One of the goals: Prevent mental health problems from developing into a chronic illness.
As a result, Lindsey said schools had lower dropout rates, lower suicide rates, better attendance, and higher graduation rates.
"It's a remarkable outcome from addressing a problem early," he said.
The issues raised at Thursday's meeting were broad, spanning bullying, self-esteem, family conflicts, crises, such as the death of a fellow classmate, and ways to discipline students without ostracizing them through a zero-tolerance approach.
In January, a judge in Richland County, ruled against the S.C. Department of Corrections in a class action lawsuit representing approximately 3,500 state inmates who were considered to be seriously mentally ill and not receiving treatment while incarcerated.
Those with a serious mental illness make up less than 4 percent of the general population, but within the South Carolina prison population it's about 17 percent, according to the judge's order.
"How many of those folks, if we had had early interventions and school based-services, would be taken care of on the back end?" he said. "How much money does it cost in that prison system to take care of those folks? ... It seems we always have money after the fact but not for preventative measures."
Lisa Lipscomb, president of the S.C. Association of School Psychologists, told lawmakers that 9 percent of middle school students surveyed said they had attempted suicided in the last year.
"It's a very disturbing number," she said.
In South Carolina, Lipscomb said there are 44 school psychologists working in the schools, which amounts to a ratio of about 1 per nearly 1,300 students. The national recommended ratio is 1 per 500-700 students.
"So we're pretty far off," she said.
Counselors through the mental health agency work in one-third of South Carolina's public schools.
In January of last year, agency director John Magill told a House panel that 12,000-13,000 school children receive mental health services per year, and that the state has 179 counselors working in about 400 schools. Discussions frequently turned to the previous month's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Magill said the number of school counselors had dropped over the years because of budget cuts to his agency and to schools.

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