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

ACT Releases New Report with Recommendations to Improve Mental Health Access 

IOWA CITY, Iowa—Roughly one in four American adolescents experience mental health challenges, yet new survey data show that rural students and students of color have more difficulty accessing help when compared to suburban and white students. 
According to “Supporting the Mental Health Well-Being of High School Students,” a new report from ACT focusing on the results of a 2019 survey of ACT test-takers, students of color were less likely than white students to say that they could reach out to a teacher or counselor if they needed mental health support (48% of African American students compared to 57% of white students).
 Additionally, rural students reported less access to basic school-based mental health services compared to students in suburban or urban locations. Seventy-one percent of suburban students, compared to only 65% of rural students, said they could access a school-based professional to talk about certain mental health issues.

Approximately 5,300 students who took the ACT in 2019 responded to the questions about their perceptions of available school-based mental health support.

The survey is another in a series about various issues related to student learning conducted by ACT among its examinees.
“Supporting students’ mental health is imperative for their educational success,” said Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “This research demonstrates that we have work to do toward improving students’ access to mental health services. The better we are able to understand the mental health needs of students and provide them access to supports, the more opportunity there is for positive outcomes such as improved student achievement, increased likelihood of graduating from high school, and decreased likelihood of behavioral incidents and drug and alcohol use. We urge policymakers, advocates, parents and community leaders to find ways to improve mental health access for students.”

ACT’s Recommendations 

Based on the survey’s findings, the report offers the following recommendations to help schools improve students’ access to mental health services, particularly for students in rural areas and students of color:

  1. Promote awareness of the availability of existing mental health services.

    Students in the survey were unaware of the availability of specific mental health services within their school despite stating that they had access to some type of mental health professional. Therefore, schools should work to promote awareness about the existence of available services.

  2. Provide access to universal mental health screenings.

    Universal mental health screenings in schools allow educators to identify potential or actual mental health disorders in students and tailor interventions to each student’s unique needs; they also decrease the likelihood that students’ mental health issues will be overlooked and provide schoolwide information for data-driven approaches to the delivery of interventions.

  3. Increase efforts to recruit and provide ongoing professional development for school counselors.

    Students might lack access to specific services because there are not enough available mental health professionals to meet students’ needs, or because available staff are ill-equipped to meet these needs. Therefore, initiatives should focus on recruiting trained school counselors and providing continual learning through well-designed, research-based professional development. Recruitment efforts must address the limited number of master's-level school counselors, especially in urban, poor, and economically and racially diverse schools.

  4. Increase state and federal funding for school-based mental health support.

    Building capacity to effectively provide these services is always a challenge, especially when schools are being asked to be responsible for more with less funding. Therefore, increasing capacity also means providing schools with the financial resources necessary to deliver needed mental health services.

  5. Provide mental health services through community partnerships.

    Schools should also consider increasing capacity by seeking out community partnerships, especially with nonprofit organizations, where partners can provide trained mental health staff to augment the services available from school-based employees.

  6. Establish competitive grant programs to evaluate program effectiveness.

    As states and districts investigate new models for providing or expanding services, competitive grants could be established at the state and/or federal level so that schools can experiment with different programs and services while also contributing to a growing body of effectiveness research.

Promising Practices Highlighted 

The report also includes promising practices and interventions identified from across the country—often via the US National Library of Medicine repository hosted by the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—with a focus on those where evaluations demonstrated positive impact.

The Research 

This research is part of a series of ACT student surveys about various issues related to student learning. This topic was chosen based on the nationwide focus on and concern about access to mental health services and student performance.

The results are based on a sample of approximately 5,300 10th-12th grade students who registered for the ACT and responded to the survey. The results of the optional survey were sent to the students afterward.

The full report can be accessed here.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.

About ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning focuses on closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement for underserved populations and working learners. Through purposeful investments, employee engagement, and thoughtful advocacy efforts, the Center supports innovative partnerships, actionable research, initiatives, campaigns, and programs to further ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.