Introduction and summary
In July 2020, during a nationwide racial reckoning and the beginning months of a multiyear pandemic, the Center for American Progress called for investments in racially equitable mental health support in schools.1 Almost two years later, student mental health is indeed a priority for states and districts, but they must ensure the changes they are implementing will best serve all students.
In his 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden urged Congress and the country to tackle student mental health.2 Twelve governors—representing red and blue states alike—echoed the president during their 2022 state of the state addresses, urging investments in social and emotional supports in schools.3 Similarly, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has repeatedly emphasized that student mental health is a priority. To that end, the Department of Education released4 guidance on supporting child mental health as part of schools’ reopening resources.5 While these public calls for student mental health support are encouraging, too many of these efforts fail to address the specific and unique needs of Black, Indigenous, and non-Black (BIPOC) students of color.
CAP examined state and district pandemic recovery spending to see whether current efforts to address student mental health needs included targeted allocations for BIPOC students. That examination showed that few proposals would equitably allocate resources, let alone specifically address these groups. As state and district leaders continue allocating recovery funds, they should increase their focus on hiring diverse mental health professionals and staff who understand the culture of the student populations they serve; providing training to avoid discrimination in mental health screenings; and making spending sustainable through community input and investment in long-term partnerships and training programs. More focused spending will better ensure BIPOC students, who have faced disparate challenges during the pandemic, do not face disparities in mental health treatment during pandemic recovery.
BIPOC student mental health two years into the COVID-19 pandemic
In the fall of 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.6 In addition to the pandemic’s general effects on all children, they noted that “inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color.”
[I]nequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color.National Academy of Pediatrics, Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children's Hospital Association
These inequities run deep. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is shaped by “social determinants,” or people’s economic, physical, and social conditions.7 People of color have faced centuries of discriminatory laws preventing access to quality housing,8 wealth building,9 education,10 and health care.11 As a result, BIPOC students were already experiencing disproportionately high symptoms of unstable mental health before the pandemic.12 These disparities have worsened during the past two years. A 2021 Education Week survey found that 77 percent of Black and Latino students reported experiencing more mental health struggles since the beginning of pandemic, which is a far higher percentage than white or Asian students who reported the same.13
In a 2021 survey, the Jed Foundation found that parents were more likely to report that their children experienced mental health challenges if their child knew someone who had become sick with COVID-19 or if they or another caregiver had lost work.14 As a result of occupational segregation,15 which meant that Black16 and Latino17 workers were more likely to work in industries affected by COVID-19 lockdowns such as hospitality, retail, and construction, BIPOC students were more likely to have a caregiver lose work. Even parents and caregivers who did not lose their jobs were less likely to be able to work from home. More than half of Black, Latino, and Native American workers held a job that required in-person work in 2020, increasing exposure to COVID-19 and risk of illness or death.18 While more than 200,000 children across the country have lost a parent or a primary caregiver to COVID-19, children of color were more likely than their white counterparts to experience such a loss.19 The rate of loss was 3.5 times higher for Native American children, twice as high for Black and Hispanic children, and 1.4 times as high for Asian American children.20
Percentage of Black and Latino students reported experiencing more mental health struggles since the beginning of pandemic
During the pandemic, BIPOC students experienced economic instability, family illness, and other traumatic events at a higher degree and with less support than their white counterparts. They were more likely to attend a school without a counselor21 and were also less likely to return to in-person learning in the fall of 2020.22 As a result, it was even more difficult for students of color to access services traditionally found in brick-and-mortar school buildings.23 Some schools attempted to provide telehealth services, but not always successfully. When New York City students—82 percent of whom are Hispanic, Black, or Asian24—tried to find help online, they were met with broken links, program lists without contact information, and confusing page redirects between multiple government offices.25 Meanwhile, only 79.1 percent of tribal lands had broadband access as recently as 2021, making it difficult for many Native American students to use these online services.26
All too often, policymakers consider the experiences of BIPOC students with a broad brush, failing to recognize that Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander students have each faced unique adversities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2021 survey, Latino and Asian American youth reported similarly high rates of declining mental health during the pandemic, though likely due to different stressors.27 For example, Latino families were more likely to experience job losses,28 while Asian American and Pacific Islander students faced increased bullying and harassment.29 Native American students and their families, meanwhile, had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 illness and death, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic when the fewest supports were in place.30 New policies and spending that are geared toward student mental health should take care to address these unique determinants of mental health as well.
Debates about critical race theory could exacerbate the student mental health crisis
Since January 2021, 41 states have introduced—and 14 states have passed—legislation that would prohibit schools from speaking honestly about racism in America.31 Supposed bans on critical race theory—a legal framework for understanding how racism exists at a policy and institutional level, not just an individual level—are instead targeting any negative description of America’s racist past.32 The proposed legislation upholds white supremacy and is creating additional trauma and stigma for BIPOC students, especially Black students.33 Teaching history that is accurate and honest is important for bolstering students’ mental health overall, with multiple studies finding that when social-emotional programs are implemented with equity in mind, all students benefit.34
Such sweeping laws could not only harm students’ mental health, but also further cut access to support services. Many of these laws are written intentionally broad, and some even specifically target social and emotional learning programs and mental health staff. For example, Oklahoma’s S.B. 1442 mandates that no educator “shall use any curricula with content related to social emotional learning.”35 Indiana’s attorney general recently released a “Parent’s Bill of Rights” that suggests that critical race theory is “being backdoored into Indiana classrooms” through social, emotional, and mental health programs.36 And a group of Texas parents have objected to having counselors in the school at all, arguing that mental health should be left entirely to parents as part of their broader opposition to a school diversity plan.37
Ensuring pandemic recovery spending addresses BIPOC student mental health needs
The president’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal requests $16.3 billion to support children in special education and children with disabilities and an additional $25 million toward addressing student and family mental health needs. Across three pandemic stimulus bills, state and local education agencies received more than $190 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.38 At least 40 states mentioned student social, emotional, or mental health support in their initial ESSER plans.39 Additionally, in a 2022 survey from the School Superintendents Association, 82 percent of district leaders said they would use American Rescue Plan funds to “expand whole child supports, including social, emotional, mental, and physical health and development.”40 Unfortunately, this spending is distributed unevenly.41 A FutureEd analysis of 3,056 school districts and charter schools partly explains this discrepancy: It found that lower-income districts needed to invest the money in facilities projects or updating outdated academic materials due to years of underfunding.42
Diversifying school mental health staff
Most states with mental health plans for their ESSER funds have included initiatives to increase staffing, an important goal given the current scarcity of qualified counselors.43 However, few state plans are designed to target these funds to the schools and students who need them the most. States such as Minnesota,44 which is advancing legislation that would require every public school to have at least one full-time school counselor; Delaware,45 which is lowering the counselor-to-student ratio across the state; and Oklahoma,46 whose $35 million School Counselor Corps awards districts grants to hire more mental health professionals, are all examples of states prioritizing equality over equity. On the other hand, New York City47 and California48 are both taking slightly more targeted approaches, focusing on “areas of high need.” California is also providing guidance to schools to leverage Medi-Cal money for counseling services.49 Still, all of these programs must do more to prioritize equity, including ensuring the diversity of school mental health staff. States can help toward that goal by building a strong pipeline for counselors of color and counselors with cultural knowledge of the populations they will be serving. Providing BIPOC students, who make up the majority of public-school student enrollment, with counselors who look like them and/or have similar cultural backgrounds has known benefits, from mentorship and cultural sensitivity to increased academic performance and graduation rates.50 However, as it stands now, there is a severe lack of counselors of color nationwide. 51
One state policy that takes a step in the right direction to address this issue is Connecticut’s H.B. 5001,52 which provides grant funding for schools to hire more behavioral health staff and includes loan forgiveness for people seeking careers in mental health.53 Disproportionate debt burden is a well-known barrier to retaining Black and Latino teachers because too many simply cannot afford to remain in the classroom.54 Given that the median school counselor salary was $58,120 in 2020, this is likely a barrier for Black and Latino counselors as well.55
Still, just hiring counselors who look like the students they serve is not enough.56 Districts can and must go further by hiring multilingual counselors who understand tribal culture. States should also provide training in competencies for counselors so they can better support immigrant families, including having information about what resources students can access without citizenship and/or without insurance.
Preventing discrimination in mental health screenings
In addition to increasing staff capacity, many states are using ESSER money to specifically increase mental health screenings. Connecticut used $2 million of its ESSER funds to provide a free online screening tool to every district in the state.57 Several other states—including Tennessee, New Jersey, and Utah—are also using their funds to increase mental health screenings, especially for younger students.58 A proposal in Colorado, which recently passed through the state legislature, will provide students with free mental health screenings and counseling sessions once signed into law.59
These state proposals are well-intended, but schools and districts must take care to prevent racial discrimination as they expand screenings. Black students’ mental illnesses have been chronically misdiagnosed, from overdiagnoses of schizophrenia to underdiagnosed eating disorders.60 On the other hand, stereotypes about academic success for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders can make educators assume these students are doing fine and as a result ignore them during mental health screenings.61 Additionally, Utah’s law specifically requires parent consent for mental health screenings, which could be a problem for children from families in which there is a stigma against discussing or treating mental health. As a result of years of discrimination and distrust from their health care providers, communities of color can be more likely than others to stigmatize mental health care.62
To address barriers such as family stigma, states and districts should find ways to give students more information about their mental health care options in schools and empower them to make their own decisions. Maryland recently lowered the age at which students can consent to mental health treatment on their own from 16 to 12.63 California, Illinois, and West Virginia have similar laws in place.64 Changes such as these should emphasize respect for families and community values in order to prevent creating unnecessary barriers between students and their families. Schools should also ensure staff are trained in culturally sensitive practices, as growing up with stigma around mental health can make it difficult for students to know how to seek out care or feel comfortable receiving treatment once they do.65
Sustaining racially equitable mental health support for students
Counselors, teachers, and students alike are already taking a stand and demanding change. Members of the Black Student Union at North Thurston High School in Olympia, Washington, filed a lawsuit against their district over a variety of alleged harms to BIPOC students, including inadequate access to mental health support.66 Teachers in Minneapolis, where BIPOC students collectively make up 63.1 percent of the public school student population,67 went on strike over a lack of counselors, social workers, and school psychologists in the district.68
According to the Department of Education’s Education Stabilization Fund tracker, despite the urgency for increased funding and mental health prioritization, most of the ESSER money has yet to be spent.69 As state and school leaders continue to allocate ESSER funds, they should be mindful of how their mental health spending can be truly racially equitable and sustainable.
Creating sustainability through community partnerships
Partnerships with community organizations are an important proactive strategy for long-term success in school mental health efforts.70 These partnerships are key to providing comprehensive mental health systems in schools and can be a mechanism for blending ESSER funds with existing community grants to make each dollar have greater impact.71 But a 2021 survey of 508 teachers in 29 states and the District of Columbia found that 58 percent said their schools were doing too little to build relationships with community organizations.72
Meanwhile, the striking teachers in Minnesota mentioned earlier in this report reported that due to current capacity, the care they are able to provide is exclusively reactive, not proactive.73 San Antonio had started investing in mental health support just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which allowed its district to more easily continue services when schools went remote.74 North Carolina had similar foresight.75 Both examples underscore the fact that having infrastructure in place during calm times make challenging times less daunting.
Several additional states and districts are beginning to invest in partnerships with ESSER funds. Chicago created a three-year grant program to expand school-based behavioral support teams and to foster more connections between schools, community organizations, and nonprofits.76 Likewise, Ohio77 is encouraging districts to form partnerships with community mental health providers. And in Iowa, the CEO of one of the state’s Mental Health and Disability Services regions noted that their pandemic recovery spending was meant to be a springboard for long-term relationship building.78
In addition to partnering with community organizations, districts should incorporate student input—as well as input from families, educators, and other community members—into their plans.79 Fortunately, policymakers do not need to look far, as students are already speaking up. One Newark, New Jersey, student started a student wellness council directly addressing activism and mental health after seeing just how hard the pandemic hit his and other Black and Latino neighborhoods and decrying the lack of existing infrastructure in his school.80 A college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis wrote about how school-based mental health support “ignores her Blackness” and makes the case for listening to students as young as elementary school about what they need.81
One solution that students have long been calling for is approved mental health days off, and schools are starting to listen.82 Eight states—Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia—have passed legislation in the past two years allowing K-12 students to take excused days off from school for mental health reasons.83 Not only is this a useful way to destigmatize caring for one’s own mental health, but it could also be a tool to address truancy discrepancies, since BIPOC students are more likely to face disciplinary action for missing school.84
Additional support for LGBTQ BIPOC students
In today’s climate, any discussion of equity in mental health support for students would be remiss if it failed to mention the ongoing legislative attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth.85 From laws barring transgender students from playing sports on the team aligned with their gender identity86 to the recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida87 to the Texas attorney general’s baseless stipulation that affirming transgender children is child abuse under state law,88 LGBTQ students are being constantly told that their identity is invalid. Mental health is intersectional, and LGBTQ people of color already face more discrimination than their white LGBTQ counterparts.89 These bills will only increase stress, trauma, and discrimination among LGBTQ BIPOC students.90
As states and districts work to provide mental health services for their BIPOC students, they must consider the additional risk factors for LGBTQ BIPOC students.91 Nearly half of all LGBTQ respondents to a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit serving LGBTQ youth in crisis, had considered suicide. However, the survey found that white LGBTQ respondents reported lower rates of suicidal thoughts or attempts than all other racial groups except Asian and Pacific Islander students.92 Mental health staff therefore should be culturally sensitive not only to race but also gender identity and sexual orientation.
For more information, GLSEN has detailed resources about the specific experiences of LGBTQ youth who are Latinx, Black, Native American and Indigenous, and Asian American and Pacific Islander.
Preventing a fiscal cliff for school mental health services
Unfortunately, pandemic recovery funds are a one-time infusion of cash, and they have an expiration date. The money includes maintenance of effort and maintenance of equity stipulations, which keep education spending at least at the same percentage of overall state spending as before the pandemic and restrict spending cuts that can be made in high-poverty districts.93 But these stipulations only ensure pandemic funds do not replace existing education spending and that funding is maintained to FY 2019 levels, when mental health spending was still woefully inadequate. States and districts should ensure they are spending ESSER funds in a way that will have a long-term impact and avoid a funding cliff when the money runs out.94
Maryland, for example, is using some ESSER funding specifically to train counselors, social workers, and psychologists, focusing not only on hiring more staff now but building a pipeline to keep staffing levels consistent over time.95 CAP’s proposal for a national counseling corps would leverage existing national service infrastructure to similarly maintain a consistent stream of talent and build a more racially and linguistically diverse pool of professionals.96
One frequent recommendation at the district level is to repurpose school police funds for mental health professionals.97 In 2021, Los Angeles cut one-third of its school police budget and used the money for a Black Student Achievement Plan that puts more mental health and restorative justice professionals in schools with the highest enrollment of Black students.98 However, leaving these choices up to individual districts is inherently inequitable, and several large, majority BIPOC districts such as Washington, D.C., have refused to reduce spending on school police.99 Even while stressing the importance of investing in student mental health in his State of the Union speech, President Biden urged cities to “fund the police” in the same breath.100 As a result, additional federal funds may be the most sustainable way to keep mental health spending at an adequate level across all districts.
The recently introduced bipartisan Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act would authorize the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which currently can only provide support at the postsecondary level, to fund programs promoting student mental health in K-12.101 The bill would also reserve 10 percent of funds for entities serving tribal organizations.102 As pandemic recovery funds run out, legislation such as this or additional action at the federal level will be critical to sustain funding for the recurring costs of staffing, training, and services that accompany the recently enhanced mental health services in schools.
BIPOC students already faced significant barriers to accessing mental health support before 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated those challenges. As states and districts continue allocating pandemic recovery funds, it is encouraging to see so many are prioritizing student mental health in their spending. However, the disparate effects of the pandemic on Black, Native American, Latino, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students will only continue to grow and worsen if these mental health supports are not allocated with racial equity in mind.