Rural Students and Students of Color Report Gaps in Availability of Mental Health Support

Shannon HayesRates of mental health incidents among today’s K-12 and postsecondary students are on the rise. While numerous educators are making mental health a priority, many of America’s students—a more diverse population than ever—are still struggling. When students lack access to needed mental health services in primary and secondary school, their academic and social-emotional learning can suffer, and they may veer away from a college-bound path or enter college less prepared to succeed. While colleges and universities may provide resources to support students, both students and institutions benefit when all students graduate high school and matriculate at college ready for success.

ACT wanted to hear from students themselves regarding access to mental health services. As part of a series of student surveys on school safety, we surveyed college-bound high school students who registered for the national February 2019 ACT® test regarding their access to mental health services and professionals at their schools.

From the more than five thousand responses, we found that almost all students were aware that they had access to some type of health professional at their high school, such as a school counselor, social worker, or school nurse. However, only two-thirds of students (67 percent) felt that these health professionals were available for mental health services such as helping with drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, or anger management. More suburban students (71 percent) said that they had access to mental health services than urban or rural students (68 and 65 percent, respectively).

It is well known that student-to-counselor ratios across the country are much higher than experts recommend, and more than a quarter of schools do not employ a school nurse. While students may have one (or more) staff members at their school who meet the definition of a health professional, overburdened school counselors, as well as school nurses, social workers, and others, may not have the time to advertise the availability of mental health services class-by-class or proactively check in with every student who might be struggling but has no urgent mental health issue.

For all students, but particularly those who do not perceive access to mental health services from school-based health professionals, reaching out to a trusted teacher or other adult may be their best option when they find themselves in need of mental health services. Teachers, coaches, and other adults are often able to build stronger relationships through their increased time spent with students, compared to school-based mental health professionals. As a result, we were unsurprised to see that more than half of the students responding (54 percent) felt that they could reach out to a teacher, while only 40 percent would reach out to a school counselor if they needed mental health support. However, when we examined the responses by student race/ethnicity, minority students were less likely to feel they could reach out to these adults: only 48 percent of African American students felt they could reach out to a teacher, while 57 percent of White students were comfortable doing so. This likely reflects the homogeneity of the US elementary and secondary teacher workforce, which is overwhelmingly White. It certainly follows that students might feel more comfortable sharing their personal struggles with mental health issues with a teacher who shares their background; unfortunately, many non-White, non-female students lack access to such a teacher. College professors, too, remain majority White despite undergraduate student populations that are less White every year; similar barriers to outreach likely exist for these students as well.

The brief also contains examples of promising practices that K-12 schools and systems across the US are enacting to increase mental health services to their students, particularly those who are currently underserved by existing services. Many, including providing mental health awareness education for students and faculty as well as training educators in Mental Health First Aid and/or cultural competency, may also benefit students at the postsecondary level.

What can higher ed administrators do?

1. Promote awareness of the availability of existing mental health services. Ensure that your incoming first-year students (as well as your returning students!) see that your institution has mental health services and other supports available. Orientation and required first-year courses may offer excellent opportunities to help students understand the mental health services and professionals to which they have access.

Universal mental health screenings can identify potential or actual mental health disorders in students early, so that timely care can be provided. Institutions can also educate faculty and staff on how to identify students who may be in need of mental health services and refer them to said services.

2. Increase availability of and access to mental health services. Increased awareness will, of course, only work if your institution does in fact have mental health professionals who are accessible, particularly when students need them.

If your institution does not currently have the resources to serve your student population’s mental health needs, capacity-building is needed. Are mental health professionals available at night and on weekends? If students find themselves in urgent need of mental health support, will they be able to get an appointment in a timely manner? Do all populations on your campus feel that they are understood and well-served by your mental health staff?

To read the full ACT report and learn more, visit: