Mental health supports for students refers to a broad range of wraparound services and interventions provided by schools to support students’ social, emotional, and mental well-being. These supports — which range from access to mental health professionals, such as school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses, to needs assessments and family-based interventions — are essential to students’ success in school and life.

The most common services offered in schools include individual-based interventions like one-on-one counseling or therapy, case management or coordinating mental health services, and referrals for care outside of school. Mental health screenings for all students — which are considered a best practice because they allow for schools to better identify and tailor services to all students with needs —  are less common, with only one-third of schools providing these outreach services.

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Students who have access to high-quality, holistic mental health supports in schools are not only healthier physically, but are also more likely to graduate from high school and successfully complete postsecondary education.

Unfortunately, students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities lack access to mental health services in their schools. And the disparities are staggering.

Disparities in Access to Mental Health Supports for Underserved Students

The need for comprehensive, culturally responsive, and evidence-based mental health supports in schools has never been greater. Mental health challenges have increased during the pandemic, with findings from the CDC in 2021 showing:

  • 37% of students in grades 9-12 reported experiencing poor mental health
  • 1 in 5 students seriously considering suicide
  • 1 in 10 attempting suicide

Furthermore, the need for high-quality mental health supports in schools is particularly significant for underserved students, including students of color, who often face a unique and challenging set of external social and economic factors. According to a 2019 report from the Office of Minority Health, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for African Americans aged 15 to 24, and Black girls in high school were 60% more likely to attempt suicide than their White peers.

Behind these numbers are real kids. Millions of students across the country, especially students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities, lack access to critical school-based mental health services.

In this brief, Ed Trust lays out the challenges and barriers that exist for students experiencing mental health issues, and offers steps that can be taken at both the national, state, and local level — which educators, advocates, and policymakers at all levels of government can start assessing by using our web tool, Is Your State Prioritizing SEAD?, a 50-state scan of state policies that support the social, emotional, and academic needs of their students.

The fact is that social, emotional, and academic development of young people are improved in school climates that provide mental health resources and are staffed with trained mental health professionals who can cater to the needs of a diverse student body. District leaders have the authority to ensure that mental health support services are rooted in a race-based lens that fosters inclusivity, access, and positive practices for students of color. It’s time to make that happen — for children’s sake.