Rural Students Face Significant Disparities in Accessing School-Based Mental Health Services

By Lou Portero - Last Updated: February 8, 2023

Rural schools have fewer ways to help kids with mental health problems than city schools, according to a study by Washington State University (WSU) published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 

The study, led by Janessa Graves, associate professor at the WSU College of Nursing, looked at geographic disparities in the availability of mental health services in a weighted, nationally representative sample of U.S. public schools. The study utilizes the latest data from the 2017-2018 School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS). 

The researchers focused on youth mental health because of the youth mental health crisis in rural communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The study found that more than half (51.8%) of public schools reported administering assessments for mental health disorders. Schools in rural areas, towns, and suburban areas were notably less likely to offer these assessments than city schools, with disparities of nineteen percent, twenty-one percent, and eleven percent, respectively. Additionally, only 38.3% of schools provided treatment for mental health disorders, with suburban schools showing the least provision compared to city schools. 

“We’re seeing a pretty consistent pattern across the country that rural schools just don’t have the resources. This is especially troubling given the rapid rise in youth suicide rates, which is disproportionally affecting rural areas.” Janessa Graves said. 

The study revealed that the primary challenges faced by schools in providing mental health services were a lack of funding and a shortage of qualified mental health professionals, which was true for all schools but particularly for those in rural areas. 

However, there was an unexpected finding that surprised the authors. The authors found that rural schools were 30% less likely to report a lack of community support as an obstacle than urban schools.

“Given the stigma around mental health in rural areas, we thought lack of community support would be a major barrier,” Graves said. “The fact that only 6.5% of rural schools called it a major barrier gives me hope that communities are rallying behind this issue that there just aren’t enough services and kids’ lives are impacted as a result.”

The study’s lead author also highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected the accessibility of school mental health services. According to Dr. Graves, a potential change that may have occurred during the pandemic is the increased utilization of “telemental health,” which refers to the use of telecommunications or videoconferencing technology to deliver mental health services.

“I think we really need to support our schools more,” she said. “By providing these services to our kids, we are giving them tools in their toolkit to be able to get through life a little more smoothly. And we’re also serving our communities better at the same time.”

Source: Medical News

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