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Student Voice Survey Series: Supporting Student Mental Health

The coronavirus pandemic is a uniquely stressful situation for many students and families. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early April, 45% of Americans—an increase from 32% in early March—reported that the pandemic was having a negative effect on their mental health. This is particularly concerning because, prior to the pandemic, students responding to an ACT survey had reported that their school’s mental health services were insufficient.

In our latest student survey, approximately 5% stated that they or their family needed help with access to healthcare, including mental health care; in open-ended responses, students mentioned increased anxiety related to a range of issues from concerns that parents may get sick, to difficulty with coursework, to general concerns about the state of the world. For instance, one student stated:

"I feel like life is in chaos at the moment. I am worried and anxious about how this will end."  
Given the importance of mental health, we asked students in the new survey about the various measures they were taking to promote and maintain their mental health during this time. Below we highlight the areas in which students were doing well and those in which they could benefit from more support.

Areas of strength: Getting adequate sleep and maintaining social contact

Over three out of four students (77%) were getting at least seven hours of sleep per night. And an even greater percentage (88%) were keeping in contact with friends and family through phone or video chatting.

Areas where students could use additional support: Creating a schedule, exercising, and eating healthy foods

Students could use additional support in creating a daily schedule. Only about one out of three students (37%) had created a schedule for themselves. Since regular routines can help to manage stress, this lack of a schedule may be problematic for many reasons. For instance, high school students are still learning how to juggle multiple courses, which may be more of a challenge in an online school environment than in person, where there is a bell schedule and daily in-person reminders from teachers.

Students could also use support in maintaining physical activity (Figure 1). Only a little over half (55%) said that they were consistently exercising. Fifteen percent stated that they needed help with fitness or recreational activities, with students of color more likely than other students to respond that they needed help in this area.

Figure 1. Help with fitness or recreational activities.

A third challenging area for students is having a healthy diet (Figure 2). Approximately two out of three students (64%) reported eating healthy food; among food-insecure students (those who were worried in the last two weeks that they may not have money for food), the percentage was only 54%. Only about one out of three (37%) in both groups had limited the amount of junk food they ate.

Figure 2. Food habits and food security

What can states and schools do?

In a previous ACT report, Supporting the Mental Health Well-Being of High School Students, we highlighted telehealth care as a promising practice for improving access to mental health services. Now, with students unable to be in school physically, availability of remote mental health options is even more important. States should consider offering programs that support students’ stress management. For example, the Illinois Call4Calm text line connects individuals with a nearby counselor for COVID-19-related stress management and emotional support.

On a more local level, schools should also consider providing virtual counseling services, scheduling regular check-ins with students and their families, and to provide parents and students with information about maintaining mental health during this period. Given our survey results, schools should also consider providing resources for creating schedules that can accommodate the unique needs of students (e.g., how to manage coursework while providing care for a sibling or other family member or while sharing a technology device). Finally, schools should consider providing ideas for indoor recreation activities, as well as general nutrition resources, including information on where food-insecure students and their families may obtain free meals.

ACT Student Survey Series

At least 55 million students are now learning at home after approximately 124,000 public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus.

ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences during the pandemic. We invited 130,000 college-bound high school students who registered to take the national April or June 2020 ACT test to participate in an online survey. A total of 13,000 students participated between March 26 and April 1, resulting in a 10% response rate.

We sought to gather students’ responses related to…

  • the technological device and internet quality that they have access to at home for school-related activities.
  • how well they are learning at home and online compared to when they were in school.
  • whether their basic needs (e.g., housing, food) are being met during the pandemic.
  • their current living situation, including whether they are employed, need to care for others, or are home alone.
  • the types of health behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, exercising) they are engaged in during the pandemic.

Read More from the Series:

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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.