Race, Research, and Student Mental Health

A Recap of the Healthy Minds Symposium

Recently, nearly 100 practitioners, researchers, and wellness professionals gathered virtually for a meeting of the minds focused on the intersections between diversity, equity, and inclusion and student mental health. Convened by The Healthy Minds Network, and facilitated by The Steve Fund and EVERFI, the research symposium focused on the scope of these issues across the K12 and higher education landscape, and explored opportunities and gaps in research surrounding student mental health.

Disparities in Student Mental Health Access

The event opened with an introduction of data findings from The Healthy Minds Network, during which Dr. Sasha Zhou, co-investigator and faculty member at Wayne State University, highlighted insights into the scope of mental health challenges, treatment seeking behaviors, and the impact of COVID-19 on college student mental health. Findings revealed that, pre-COVID, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among college students have shown a steady increase over the years, as have counseling utilization and use of psychotropic medication. Findings also revealed mental health treatment disparities, especially for students of color. 

For instance, while 40% of white students who screened high for depression or anxiety sought treatment, for Black students this number dropped to 26%. And, among Asian/Asian American students, 22% sought help. Findings also revealed that, since the COVID-19 pandemic took place, there have been increases in depression (35.7% in 2019 vs. 40.9% in 2020) and mental health impaired academics (21.9% in 2019 vs. 30.5% in 2020). Interestingly, the study also revealed a decrease in student-reported high-risk drinking (38.3% in 2019 vs. 24.1% in 2020)— which could be speculated as being due to the frequency at which students are engaging in physical distancing and attending school remotely.

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Bridging the scope of the issues into the K12 space, EVERFI shared insights from the online course Mental Wellness Basics, highlighting student mental health data among over 200,000 middle and high school students who completed the course. These insights also showed differences among student mental health statistics based on race, gender, and academic performance. For example, while on the whole ¾ of all students feel that they have control of their health and wellness— this number dropped to 56% for non-binary students.

Similarly, nearly ¾ of all students report that they know specific things that they can do to protect their mental health, but that number drops to 60% among both for non-binary students and students with a self-reported GPA of D or below. And, among race, differences also emerged, with Black students reporting the highest levels of stigma, with more than ¼ reporting they would feel uncomfortable around someone if they knew they had a mental health disorder, and more than half reporting that most people would think less of a person who has received mental health treatment.

Improve Student Mental Health Data

As institutions of higher education and K-12 school districts work to meet the growing mental health needs of students, there are significant opportunities for improvement. Some of the most illuminating insights from this gathering include:

1. Ensure that qualitative and quantitative data are captured

One of the most frequently discussed topics at the symposium was the degree to which student mental health data is collected, and the degree to which a likert scale can only tell so much of a story. By creating opportunities for follow-up to questions about which there may be concern, and by allowing mechanisms for students to elaborate on their answers to specific questions, researchers can enrich the data story and provide additional context for action.

2. Create an audit of current data collection practices— and identify gaps in them

By exploring current processes for collecting data with a lens to inclusivity— who is represented, who isn’t, and what information is missing— researchers can begin to identify opportunities for improvement.

3. Include students in the survey development and data collection process

By including students in the process of data collection, researchers and practitioners can obtain insights into how questions are interpreted, whether or not they are clear, and explore opportunities for additional exploration in identifying the needs of their target population.

4. Ensure representation across the scope of mental health need

Whether a student is learning skills to bolster and promote positive mental health, or seeking out clinical support, representation matters. By ensuring that staff are as diverse as the student body, colleges, universities, and school districts may increase pathways to ensuring equity in mental health for all.

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