Almost a third of students who considered visiting a school counselor, school-based therapist or school psychologist about issues outside of career services said they ended up not doing so because they didn't think their issues "were big enough to bother someone with" or felt like they would be judged, according to a nationally representative survey from Springtide Research Institute.
In the same survey of 4,038 teens and young adults, 45% said they hesitate to see a therapist because their parents don’t take their concerns seriously, 53% said they wouldn't want their parents to know they were meeting with a school counselor or therapist, and 51% said they fear school staff might treat them differently or give them fewer opportunities at school.
The results are among the latest in a growing body of research pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on student mental health and school connectedness, as well as stigma surrounding treatment for mental well-being.
Stigma surrounding mental health services in schools persists despite an acute need for them. The pandemic’s impact on student mental health and school connectedness has been especially pronounced for traditionally marginalized students, including Black, immigrant and nonbinary students.
Of LGBTQ students, 76% reported feeling greater levels of poor mental health, emotional abuse by a parent or guardian, and suicide attempts, according to data released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's compared to 37% of heterosexual students feeling that way.
However, a survey released earlier this month by The Trevor Project found recent declines in the share of LGBTQ students saying their mental health was poor most of the time or always during the pandemic. Despite this, nearly two-thirds of LGTBQ students said they could not get the mental health counseling they sought in the past year.
The CDC data also shows Black students, along with Asian students, to be the groups most likely to say they experienced racism. In Springtide Research Institute's survey, Black students also were the least likely to say they have a trusted adult at school and most likely to say their school mental health professional "might not understand me or the challenges I am having" due to racial or ethnic differences.
Springtide Research Institute describes itself as "the only sociological research institute in the United States solely dedicated to young people ages 13-25."
A report from New America highlights racial and other traumas experienced by immigrant communities as well. "The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound detrimental effects on children of immigrants," the report said, adding that immigrant families are among communities that felt a "disproportionate representation of minority deaths."
Despite existing stigmas surrounding mental health, Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide Research Institute, said a little over half of students not wanting their parents to know they are meeting with a counselor or therapist “is actually good news relative to what it probably was in the past."
"With Gen Z we consistently see that stigma surrounding mental health is on the decline," Packard said in an email. "They’re simply more comfortable talking about mental health issues and advocating for the mental health needs of themselves and their friends."
However, the stigma that remains may not be evenly distributed among student subgroups.
Hispanic and Latino students, for example, were most likely to say they hesitated speaking with a counselor or therapist out of fear of judgment, while Black students were most likely to say their parents or guardians don't take their mental health concerns seriously.
"It’s important to remember that the reduction in stigma isn’t even or universal," Packard added. "Students are bringing a range of cultural and family values with them to every issue."
School and mental health professionals should "be up front and honest with ALL students and families about what will and won’t be shared well before a student ever experiences a mental health need," he wrote.