It’s no surprise that we’re living through difficult times. After two years, we’re still in a global pandemic, which has predominantly impacted people of color. In addition, Book bans, attacks on critical race theory, and partisan political fights target everything from Black youths’ sexuality, to history, to health.

And we’re seeing the effects.

Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black youths ages 15 to 24, according to the Office of Minority Health. The same report found Black high school-aged girls were 60% more likely to attempt suicide than their white peers. And, by June 2020, the CDC saw the rate of Black respondents who reported having “seriously considered suicide” was significantly higher.

For a variety of reasons — ongoing stigma, lack of insurance, most accessible — Black students often rely on the mental health services offered at school.

Outside of a mental health-specific practice, Black students were nearly 600 times as likely to get mental health help in an academic setting compared to other options, according to 2020 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In fact, mental health services in schools have been steadily gaining popularity among students since 2009, before dropping slightly in 2020 when the school year was interrupted, according to the SAMHSA report. As a result, the rate of students receiving mental health care through school decreased by 14% in 2020 compared to 2019.

So how are schools changing the way they address and prioritize mental health — and the specific needs of Black students — since 2020?

The Renewed Focus on Mental Health

For school-aged people, the majority of their time is spent in a school building — about eight hours per day, 10 months out of the year. To help address mental health during academic hours, schools are trying to focus on social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills. This includes teaching kids how to be in touch with their emotions and protect against adverse mental health outcomes.

But it’s been difficult.

Though there’s been more conversation, the implementation is challenging, says Dr. Kizzy Albritton, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. There was already a shortage of school-based mental health professionals before the pandemic, which has now been exacerbated, as have mental health issues. In addition, though schools clearly recognize the importance of mental health, they aren’t always provided adequate resources.

“Unless there are more resources funneled into the school system, we’re going to see a continued catch-up issue across the board,” Albritton says. “And, unfortunately, our Black students are going to continue to suffer the most.”

Unless there are more resources funneled into the school system, we’re going to see a continued catch-up issue across the board.

Dr. Kizzy Albritton, associate professor of school psychology, University of Texas at Austin

In a survey of high school principals and students, Education Week Research Center found discrepancies in how principals and students viewed a school’s mental health services. While 86% of the principals said their schools provided services, only about 66% of students agreed. The survey did point out it’s possible the school offers these services and students aren’t aware. The survey also found Black and Latinx students were less likely than their peers to say their schools offered services.

Dr. Celeste Malone, the president-elect of the National Association for School Psychologists and a Howard University associate professor, says she hasn’t previously seen this degree of attention to mental health in schools.

“I see that a lot in my role for a school psychology graduate program: the outreach and people contacting me with openings where they didn’t exist previously,” Malone says. “With this increased push in funding to hire more, that’s definitely a very, very positive movement.”

Mental Health Is Not One Size Fits All

Just like with many aspects of health, Black youths need different mental health support from their peers of other races. They need a counselor who understands their lived experiences, like microaggressions and other forms of discrimination or racism, without the student having to explain.

For example, in order to best address the specific mental health needs of Black students, districts need to provide information breaking down mental health stigmas; focus on hiring Black counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals; and fund anti-racist and trauma-informed mental health practices, according to the Center for American Progress.

While she hears a lot of talk, Albritton says she isn’t seeing widespread evidence of these solutions in practice.

“There needs to be a willingness, first of all, to understand that our Black students, their needs look a lot different,” Albritton says. 

School officials need to understand where Black students are coming from — that their families and households experience systemic and structural racism, which are known to trigger anxiety and depression. The effects of the racial wealth gap also play a role, from the neighborhood kids are living in, to the schools they can attend to the impacts on their health. Students might be bringing worries about these challenges to school, which could be reflected in their behavior. This is why, Albritton says, it’s crucial to also work with students’ families. 

“You have to be willing to have that partnership and understand what their family needs are and listen to them. And they have to be willing to trust you,” Albritton says.

Malone agrees it’s been a mixed response since 2020. She says there’s been increased awareness of culturally responsive mental health, along with the importance of having diverse mental health providers. 

“That awareness is there and growing, but I’m not quite sure what it actually looks like in practice,” Malone says.

She wants schools to offer spaces for students from a variety of minoritized backgrounds — whether it’s race, ethnicity, or sexuality — to come together, talk about their unique experiences, and develop a community. She also wants counselors to be intentional about asking students about the impacts of discrimination and racism, creating a space for them to talk about it. Plus, creating partnerships with community mental health providers and organizations will help schools learn how to think about cultural aspects and adapt new practices.

“It prepares them for the challenges that they encounter,” Malone says. “As a Black student, what is the situation that they’re likely to encounter, such as microaggressions? And how do they learn to cope with it?”

How Do We Fix This?

Though there isn’t a standard way across the country to address the mental health needs of students, some school districts are implementing their own practices. 

Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, launched a mental health hotline in 2020 for students and parents to access during the week. School districts in Oklahoma are applying for grants, which extend benefits statewide, to research and expand mental health resources. In South Carolina, Health and Human Services is helping to increase the number of school-based mental health counselors and programs.

There’s also Mental Health First Aid, which has seen growing popularity since 2020. In fact, interest has gone up 35% since the start of the pandemic, according to Tramaine El-Amin, the client experience officer at MHFA. MHFA trains people who work with youths to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse issues.

“It’s an early intervention/prevention course,” El-Amin says. “It’s just like CPR, first aid — what to look for.”

To date, the program has trained about 2.7 million people and is available in all 50 states. And the benefits are far-reaching. El-Amin said the biggest thing they hear from participants is the program not only taught them how to help others, but how to help themselves.

“The evidence demonstrates that people’s own mental well-being increases because they’re more aware of their own challenges as they go through,” she says.

Mental Health Doesn’t Take a Summer Break

Every year, students leave school for about three months of summer vacation. But mental health issues don’t go away just because the school counselor isn’t there to address them. Though schools have figured out ways of providing meals to families during breaks and offering different academic support, mental health is still the missing piece.

“I don’t think we have had really good, authentic, and intentional discussions about continuing to support children’s social-emotional learning over the summer,” Albritton says. “But I don’t know why we couldn’t.”

She suggested offering weekly Zoom sessions with counselors, or other limited programs that don’t strain the budget or counselor. And the programs need to be tailored to address the community’s needs.

“We need to recognize that social-emotional learning is as important as food security and academic achievement,” Albritton says. “All of those discussions need to happen together like a wraparound program.”

With this increased push in funding to hire more, that’s definitely a very, very positive movement.

Dr. Celeste Malone, president-elect of the National Association for School Psychologists and a Howard University associate professor

Mental Health Month is every month for El-Amin — including the summer ones. She suggested schools create community partnerships through Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts programs, or even the PTA to keep the support going when students return to their home environments. Plus, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, which houses MHFA, represents over 3,000 facilities nationwide.

Along the same lines, Malone said it should be the school’s responsibility to help families find resources within the community. And the school-based counselors should provide families with information or fact sheets for supporting their child during the break.

“What are the activities that they were doing over the course of the year? What were the things that they were focusing on, so that students could still practice that and continue to refine those skills over the summer?” Malone says. “Help [students] use them in other settings outside of school so that they are better prepared when they return in fall.”

Malone also highlighted the importance of letting kids decompress over the summer. They’re still having stressful school years full of disruptions and unpredictable environments. Students need the space to “vision and dream,” Malone says, to envision their futures, and have a sense of hope and optimism.

“We’re not close to normal circumstances as of yet, so I think recognizing that for kids and giving them the time and space to just relax will be important,” Malone says. “There’s been this rush to normality, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...