CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) — An impact report from the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness is revealing new details about how the center’s school-based initiative has evolved to meet a growing need for mental health care in schools.

According to the 2021-2022 impact report, the initiative reached 19 districts, 204 schools and 126,000 K-12 students.

“We’re partners with the school. We ask the school what is needed, and then we go out and find evidence based, proven programs to address those needs, fill the gaps, synergize with what’s already there,” said Dr. Janice Key, pediatrician and director of the MUSC Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness.

Source: MUSC

Since it began 12 years ago, in participating schools, the initiative has been proven to significantly reduce the average student body mass index, while raising rates of attendance and high school graduation.

“I’m like the pediatrician for 150,000 kids, and I love that,” Dr. Key said.

Dr. Key said the initiative has adapted to meet new needs with a school-centered framework of wellness, prevention and treatment — shifting its focus from obesity to mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to the rise in depression and anxiety, Dr. Key’s team at MUSC designed and implemented activities like art therapy, high school walking groups, taste-testing of fruits and vegetables, and trauma therapy to benefit both students and staff in schools across South Carolina.

“By doing that resiliency work, we hope that we will be upstream, and prevent so many kids from becoming depressed,” Dr. Key said.

Meredith Barnette, a school nurse at James Island Elementary, said she has witnessed this growing trend first hand.

“We’re seeing a lot more anxiety, a lot more depression, a lot more social issues with the kids,” Barnette said.

After trading 20 years in the operating room for a new role in the classroom, the school nurse has implemented a walking path for students, a wellness room for teachers and motivating for challenges for all, even winning an award for her wellness efforts in 2021.

The mom of four winning big — and losing big, too.

“After that first year, which is the year that we won, that summer I made a commitment to get more healthy, and in turn lost 55 pounds,” she said.

Barnette credits the wellness initiative for expanding counseling resources in schools.

In the year ahead, Barnette said she looks forward to continuing her wellness work, along with expanding nutrition education and working on the school’s garden.

“Seeing all of the hard work come to fruition with the children and the staff…it’s just so rewarding, you want to keep doing it,” Barnette said.

For more information on MUSC’s Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness, click here.