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Greenville County Schools adds mental health counselors to every school

Rhonda Anthony has served as a mental health counselor at Hollis Academy for 17 years. Photo by Will Crooks.

Little more than a decade ago, the Greenville Mental Health Center had about 12 therapists stationed in Greenville County Schools. Now, it has more than four times that amount.

Within the last few years, the school district has amped up its staff of mental health counselors, which it receives through memorandums of agreement with Greenville Mental Health Center and the Piedmont Center for Mental Health Services.

Now, Greenville County Schools has at least a part-time mental health counselor available to students at every school.

Rob Rhodes, director of school counseling services with GCS, said the goal is to have a mental health counselor stationed full-time in every school.

Currently, GCS has 83 full-time counselors in 98 schools and programs.

“When they don’t have access to something, a need goes unmet, and so we’re trying to provide access to these services for students who need it,” Rhodes said. “That’s part of our commitment to support the whole child.”

Last year, the district’s mental health counselors served more than 20 percent more students compared with three years ago and increased their encounters with students by more than 60 percent.

Chris Haines, coordinator of school mental health with Greenville Mental Health, has been in Greenville schools for 11 years.

“This is a program that has been around for 25 years, stationing therapists in schools, and the last probably four or five years has been the majority of our growth,” Haines said.

Haines said this partnership works great for schools because it allows educators to teach and mental health providers to counsel.

“We’re not equipped to be an educator, and they’re not equipped to be a treatment provider for mental health,” Haines said.

Unlike most states, South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health doesn’t just broker treatment with private psychiatrists and counselors, it also functions as a treatment provider. In South Carolina, there are 17 mental health centers under the department, with Greenville Mental Health and the Piedmont Center both serving Greenville County. Both centers are in the planning stages of merging within the next year.

“South Carolina is really a leading state with this. It goes back to 1995 — they’re one of five states that got some federal money to start school mental health programs, and our state has managed it the best,” Haines said. “Our program at Greenville Mental Health is the best one in the state and one of the leaders in the country.”

Haines said the number of counselors is what sets Greenville apart from other school districts.

“Most other places in South Carolina will have one therapist covering between two and seven schools at a time, and that’s really not the way that this model works the best,” Haines said. “It works best when there’s a therapist stationed at the school all the time.”

Rhonda Anthony has been a mental health counselor at Hollis Academy for 17 years, and her relationship with the community has been key to her success.

“When I came to Hollis, there had been very few mental health counselors who stayed more than one or two years, and when I came, people told me this was a very difficult school,” Anthony said. “And I didn’t find it to be that difficult, actually.”

Anthony said a lot of parents balk when they hear that their child has been referred to the school mental health counselor.

“I think it’s all in the words ‘mental health’ — they’ll be happy to see the school counselor, but I think ‘mental health’ sometimes stigmatizes it. But once they realize what I actually do here, they’re like, ‘OK,’” Anthony said. “I think they think it’s going to put a label on their kids, and I think they have this perception that it means their kid’s crazy. And they’re not.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 13 and 20 percent of children in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year.

Most often, Anthony finds herself talking to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or those who have lost a parent.

She can relate well — Anthony’s father died when she was 10 years old while he was serving on the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

“I think I wanted to carry on my dad’s legacy of helping people, and because of everything I had been through with my dad’s death, people felt comfortable with me talking about their problems,” Anthony said.

She said the best part of her job is seeing breakthroughs in children — one student she had years ago stands out in her memory.

“I always knew there was something she wasn’t telling me, no matter how many ways I asked about it,” Anthony said. “In May of her fifth-grade year, she came into my office and I wasn’t in here — because my kids show up for appointments — and I came in and on the board she had written, ‘So-and-so touched me.’”

The girl told Anthony about a family member who had abused her, and who later admitted it to law enforcement.

“It was one of the hardest moments to sit through, but it was also one of the most rewarding, because finally, after three years, she trusted me enough to tell me,” Anthony said.

Anthony doesn’t have many breakthrough moments like that one — her most disappointing moments are when she’s counseling a student who moves out of the district.

“You don’t know where they’ve gone so you can’t follow up treatment with them,” Anthony said. “If they move within the district, that’s easy, but [it’s hard] when they move out of county or out of state, and you just don’t know what happened to them.”

For one day a week, Anthony goes to Mitchell Road Elementary School to counsel students.

Within the next year, the district plans on adding more school counselors so that no counselors are splitting their time between two schools.

Nov 27, 2018
By Ariel Gilreath
Greenville Journal

Greenville County Schools adds mental health counselors to every school

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