Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
This piece is adapted from a 2020 Center for American Progress (CAP) column about mental health support for students of color.
This year's Wonkathon prompt asks how to support student mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction. But given the many connections between mental health and academic achievement, from grades and test scores to absences and education persistence, it is clear any time spent supporting mental health is also time spent supporting academic instruction. A better question might be how to support all students’ mental health coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic with an explicit racial equity lens to prioritize the specific needs of Black, Indigenous, and non-Black students of color (BIPOC students), as well as the capacities of schools and providers to meet those needs.
My team at CAP has been focused on this need since the beginning of the pandemic because we already know what times like these can do to both academic performance and mental health. During the Great Recession, job losses and spending cuts were associated with both worse academic and mental health outcomes, especially for already disadvantaged students, and that was without the additional trauma of illness and death included in the current pandemic-induced recession.
The $195 billion in aid to public schools in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and prior legislation presents a tremendous opportunity to help students recover from the academic, social, and emotional effects of the pandemic. But leaders must invest these resources with racial equity in mind to provide more and better mental health supports in schools.
In 2019, 14 million students attended a school with a police officer but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. These students were more likely to be BIPOC students and students from families with low incomes. But due to higher average rates in their communities of job loss, illness, and death during the pandemic, BIPOC students are also those most likely to be returning to school with coronavirus-related trauma. This is especially true for tribal populations, which through the pandemic have had some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases and some of the lowest education funding.
There are established social determinants of mental health. From education to income to environment, structural racism undergirds many risk factors for mental illnesses. As a result, there are racial disparities in rates of diagnosis, treatment access, and prognosis. Across America, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, not only are BIPOC people less likely to have access to mental health services, but when they do receive care, it is often lower quality than the care their White peers receive. In schools, BIPOC students are less likely than White students to say they could reach out to a counselor if they need mental health support.
What’s more, BIPOC students are a large and diverse group, and there are important differences in the specific mental health needs of Native, Black, Latinx, and AAPI students. There is no one way to address BIPOC mental health because there is no one mental health need for all BIPOC students. Across racial groups, there can be vast differences in underlying causes of mental illness, social stigmas, and access to effective treatment. Understanding these differences is critical to ensure resources are allocated in a way that will improve mental health outcomes for all students.
For example, both Black and Latinx students report barriers to accessing quality mental health support, but for very different reasons. Psychiatric problems for Black students are more likely to be disciplined than treated. This knowledge, coupled with an enduring dearth of Black medical professionals, has led Black youth to have an understandable distrust of the American medical system that may prevent them from seeking help when experiencing mental health concerns. Latinx students from immigrant communities, meanwhile, are often unable to access treatment due to language barriers or disproportionately high uninsurance rates. During the pandemic, many students who know undocumented immigrants or are undocumented themselves reported anxiety about seeking out mental health support due to fears of increased immigration enforcement tied to these resources.
Southeast Asian refugees face similar barriers, and are especially likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following their immigration as a result of conflict in the country they left or trauma experienced while adjusting to a new culture. Although Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students as a whole reported fewer mental health concerns than their peers before the pandemic, those who were diagnosed with a mental illness were least likely of any group to seek or receive treatment. And a lack of quality disaggregated data within the AAPI community itself makes it difficult to address their diverse experiences and needs.
AAPI students have been the victims of increased bullying and violence since the novel coronavirus was first discovered, and with racist hate crimes against the AAPI community continuing to rise, they will likely need specific support as they return in school. Black students will also need racially-sensitive and trauma-informed practices, especially after the past year of high-profile police killings of Black men and women and nationwide protests in response to centuries of racial injustice and anti-Black racism.
Native students, similarly, face additional trauma as Native Americans across the United States have contracted and died from Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. Meanwhile, Latinx communities have faced some of the largest economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Hispanic women and immigrants are two groups reporting some of the highest rates of job loss. And U.S.-born children with at least one undocumented parent were ineligible for the first round of coronavirus stimulus checks.
Schools and districts must focus on increasing students’ access to counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals who are multilingual and represent the communities where they work. This should focus on targeted recruitment of employees, but also partnerships with health providers and qualified community organizations to maximize the impact of qualified professionals. This not only means hiring BIPOC counselors and social workers, but also ensuring access to mental health professionals who know what resources students without citizenship can and cannot access, are trained in trauma-informed practice, and can provide dedicated programming to breaking down mental health stigmas or distrust in their student populations.
Addressing student mental health needs now and after the Covid-19 pandemic will take significant time, money, and staff support. But the traumatic effects of the pandemic will outlast the virus itself, especially for BIPOC students. The long-term benefits—academic and otherwise—of providing racially equitable and appropriate mental health support far outweigh any short-term concerns about costs or impact on academic instructional time.