A new study has found that only 48% of students of color feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher or counselor if they need mental health support compared to 57% of White students.
These numbers stand out sharply, considering the report, by the non-profit ACT, found only one in four American adolescents experiences mental health challenges.
The report, “Supporting the Mental Health Well-Being of High School Students,” analyzed and compared students’ experience and knowledge of mental health services in their high schools. It found both racial and geographical demographic disparities in the level of access and comfort while seeking counseling.
Schools need to address this issue by diversifying the teacher workforce and ensuring that all teachers take cultural competency training sessions, said ACT’s report.
The risk of mental illness for students of color are significantly reduced if their school has a positive and supportive environment. One way to create this atmosphere is to have more teachers with similar race and background as the students.
“I think students have this really unique perspective,” said Dr. Raeal Moore, senior research scientist at ACT and co-author of the report. “If we are here as educators or policy makers to provide support to students, then we should be asking them what they need and I don’t think that’s often done.”
To create more diversity, many schools around the country have participated in the Grow Your Own program, which recruits and trains students and community members of color to become teachers.
The report surveyed experiences of students from urban, rural and suburban schools and found that 71% percent of suburban students, compared to only 65% of rural students, said they could access a school-based professional to discuss certain mental health issues.
The report suggested that rural schools make teleconferencing available for students to communicate with trained professionals, counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists, through Skype or phone calls.
“It’s an added benefit because students can have access to that resource and there doesn’t necessarily need to be someone geographically there and the student doesn’t have to leave the school to receive the support,” said Moore.
There were 5,300 participants in the report’s survey. The students were from grades 10-12 and had each taken the ACT in 2019.
ACT highlighted several recommendations for policymakers and schools to uphold.
High schools need to promote and raise more awareness about the existence and availability of mental health services on campus.
According to the report, 97% of students said they had access to some type of health professional at their school. But only 67% of students said that those professionals were available to help with basic mental health services such as drug and alcohol abuse, anger management or bullying. As much as 23% of students said they didn’t know if their school offered help for those issues and 9% said that their school did not offer those types of services.
Schools should also provide students access to universal mental health screenings. This allows them to more easily identify and diagnose mental health disorders in students, which in turn decreases the chance of them being overlooked.
Many schools don’y have enough mental health professionals. Therefore, the report recommends schools recruit more skilled counselors and provide more professional development opportunities. Schools should aim to increase the number of master’s-level school counselors within urban, poor and racially diverse schools.
The report said that there should also be an increase in state and federal funding for school-based mental health resources. Schools should also partner with the local community to offer more mental health services.
ACT’s report was an extension of its 2018 study, “Creating Safe Schools: Examining Student Perceptions of Their Physical Safety at School.” The earlier report found that about 44% of students reported having access to mental health support.
“We weren’t sure if that statement was true in the sense that they only had access to the information or that support or that they weren’t aware that they had access to that support,” said Moore. “So we wanted to go into more detail about the types of people and resources that students had access to in this current study.”
In the near future, ACT will work to develop a qualitative analysis of both of their studies to compare students’ open-ended responses to mental health and physical safety within school.
“It’s important to get the students voices out there, we talk about students a lot in policymaking but we don’t always talk with students,” said Shannon Hayes, senior policy analyst at ACT and co-author of the report. “Just making their perspectives heard and listening to what their perceptions are about their own access and needs are I think helpful to building good policies to support their mental health.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].