Schools are key to solving mental health equity gaps

Declining mental health is the national health crisis of this generation, and our schools must act

Key points:

Kids are facing a crisis unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen as young people face staggering rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. While there isn’t one clear cause as to why this is the case—there has been a lot of unrest over the past several years—it’s essential that our systemic approach to mental health support shifts with these unprecedented times.

Equity gaps often prevent youths from accessing the care they need. It’s been reported that even before COVID-19, 1 in 5 children had a treatable mental health diagnosis but only about 20 percent received care from a provider. For many young people, living without addressing these underlying mental health challenges transcends into other areas of their lives—including academics and social behavior. These critical services must be accessible where kids spend the majority of their time: school. 

The National School Lunch Program was established in the 1940’s to combat hunger and improve childhood nutrition by ensuring that every child who needed meals could have them at school. Declining mental health is the national health crisis of this generation and our schools must act.

Our public schools are uniquely positioned to solve three major equity gaps in youth mental health: financial barriers, cultural barriers, and geographical access to care amid a shortage of mental health professionals. Schools can unlock the potential of young people, of all backgrounds, when they have equal access to the resources they desperately need.

Reaching geographical resource deserts

Mental health resource “deserts” in certain rural areas of the country make it difficult for young people to access care. In fact, an astounding 75 percent of rural counties across the country have no mental health providers or fewer than 50 per 100,000 people. The lack of funding and presence of care providers, paired with the national drought of mental health professionals, has only worsened youth complications as many are unable to address issues before they lead to more severe, life-threatening events. 

Thousands of school districts have addressed this by leveraging technology to improve access to qualified mental health professionals through teletherapy. It allows thousands of students per year–with all kinds of needs backgrounds–to more easily access culturally relevant and experienced clinicians that can help each student based on their unique needs. It also allows them to meet whenever and wherever is most convenient, and have a program that’s designed specifically for them.

Making care affordable for families

During this time of economic turbulence, many parents have lost their jobs (six million Americans were unemployed as of June 2023), forcing them to live on a tighter budget. There are a rising number of families who are living without health insurance and the high out-of-pocket costs of therapy often prevents families from seeking out services.

Schools have helped to play a major role in overcoming financial barriers and supporting affordability for families to access mental health support. However, heightened demand has surpassed what most schools are able to handle and in-school teams, like school counselors, are dwindling. And, with so many counselors leaving their positions, those remaining have increasingly limited bandwidth and are forced to direct their attention towards the most severe crises. This often leaves kids with mild to moderate needs without adequate support. In order to fulfill the needs, schools must integrate outside mental health services.

Adapting for cultural intersectionalities

Student populations are more diverse than ever, with families accustomed to different cultural and social norms. Some cultures are more open or communicative about mental health while others aren’t comfortable discussing these topics at home—which perpetuates the stigma around mental health. This stigma still remains a major barrier for youths to receive or seek out care. Over half (52 percent) of educators say that students and/or their families are not asking for help because of the stigma associated with mental health problems. 

Schools can help families overcome this by incorporating inclusive, culturally competent care and mental health education within their programs. With more knowledge around mental health care, families can better identify, understand and respond to the unique needs of their child. For families where existing stigmas are a challenge, young people often benefit from seeing clinicians who can relate to their diverse backgrounds. This can be especially impactful for students who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, low income, live in rural areas, are experiencing homelessness, and/or come from immigrant households. For families who’ve sought care, nearly half have cited difficulty in finding a therapist that their child can relate to. Schools that work with outside mental health professionals can match students with a therapist who has personal experience or expertise in the diverse communities that make up their students’ backgrounds, as well as knowledge of the common mental health stigmas these students may face from either their community or family.

Looking ahead

A student’s learning behavior is inextricably linked to their mental well-being. When individuals are experiencing higher levels of stress or anxiety, it can reflect negatively in their ability to focus or retain information. Equitable access to mental health resources drives academic performance and success—giving all students an opportunity to access the care that they may so desperately need. By adapting to the diverse needs of today’s youth, our schools can—and will—make a significant impact in combating what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, has declared the “defining public health crisis of our time,” and help an entire generation of students be more successful in school and life.

Related: It’s critical to promote mental health supports at the start of the school year

eSchool Media Contributors