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Pandemic Research Suggests Solutions for Student Mental Health Crisis

By: Isabelle Keever, strategic communications intern

When school buildings closed at the height of the pandemic, 55 million students were learning from home, leaving many of them struggling to adjust to a new normal. Two years later, most schools have reopened, but the pandemic’s effects on students’ mental health remain a concern with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls a “mental health crisis.”

Student-focused surveys and research from ACT and others—spanning the years leading up to and into the pandemic—shed important light on how students are doing and offer opportunities to address the student mental health crisis. Understanding the research findings from students’ experiences learning during the pandemic presents an opportunity for action and positive change.

Even before the pandemic, students reported to ACT that their schools’ mental health services were lacking, and access to mental health supports varied. Students of color and those living in rural areas reported having less access to mental health support, while some students were unaware of mental health services their schools offered.

The implications of these pre-pandemic findings are evident in more recent research, too. A survey by the CDC found that “more than one in three high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and nearly half of students felt persistently sad or hopeless.”

Similarly, during the early months of the pandemic, ACT surveyed high school students to learn about their experiences. The report found that students, particularly students of color, struggled to implement strategies, such as creating a schedule and exercising, that would benefit their mental health. Students also mentioned increased anxiety related to a range of issues including general concerns about the state of the world.

Supporting students’ mental health needs is not new, but we can no longer overlook the widespread severity and tremendous amount of support students now need to succeed—including academically, social-emotionally, and physically to address the whole learner.

Different research analyses, including those by ACT and the Institute of Education Sciences, propose fundamentally similar recommendations. Namely, strengthening current school resources such as increasing school counseling capacity, promoting awareness of those resources, and increasing funding for more mental health services.

While working toward these large goals, school systems and policymakers should consider diverse student needs and normalized learning environments that provide equal access to students who need mental health support. Using state and federal school funding aimed toward mitigating COVID-19 mental health issues can address the gap in access to support while establishing long-lasting resources in K12 and postsecondary institutions across the country.

Following investments in mental health supports through the American Rescue Plan, the U.S. Department of Education provided guidance to use funding to address mental health issues, encouraging colleges to strengthen resources including telehealth and in-person care for students. To further support student recovery, the Department announced other investments in mental health initiatives.

In addition to actions the federal government has taken, states and school districts are taking action by adopting mental health solutions for their students, such as allowing students to take days off. Additionally, the University of Texas System announced plans to invest $16.5 million to improve student mental health services including a crisis line, telehealth options, and faculty and staff training. Other grass-roots efforts have sprung up to address the student mental health crisis including peer counseling, mental health coordinators, and creating safe spaces for students.

Continuing these efforts, and expanding them, may begin to alleviate the student mental health crisis and inadequate access to support within school systems; however, there is more to be done to fully address the prevalent mental health crisis among today’s young people. The problem existed long before the pandemic, and acknowledgment of the problem is no longer enough—it is essential that school leaders, policymakers, and communities take actions to turn progress into real change.