New Report Details Student Mental Health Crisis in California

Findings from student surveys administered in 2020 and 2021 show that student mental health needs are at a crisis level, requiring immediate attention. ACLU California Action and The CSU Center to Close the Opportunity Gap today released the first “State of Student Wellness” report capturing two years of survey responses from over 1,200 students across 23 counties and 46 California school districts. This report is the first to examine multiple years of student wellness data throughout the pandemic.   

The surveys, administered by ACLU Southern California’s Youth Liberty Squad and the California Association of School Counselors (CASC), showed a high level of need and severe lack of mental health support for students.  

“The first-year data revealed that students experienced significant stress, grief, and social anxiety that impacted their academic success and emotional well-being,” said Dr. Caroline Lopez-Perry, CASC board member and professor at Cal State Long Beach. “The second year revealed deepening trauma with students experiencing depression, panic attacks, suicide ideation, and some self-harming behavior.”

Findings from this report suggest the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the mental health of students.

The report finds that:

  • Roughly one-fifth of students (22%) felt they might be traumatized and would not be the same because of the pandemic.
  • Over 63% of students reported experiencing an emotional meltdown and 45% of students reported feeling depressed.
  • Over half of students reported the need for mental health services in both survey years, with over 22% of students desiring services for the first time each year.
  • After more than a year of the pandemic and global shutdown, the 2021 survey found only 17% of students reported an increase in mental health services at their school while the overwhelming majority (83%) did not experience a change in access to services.
  • Stigma from both parents and peers prevented students from seeking services along with the limited staffing and disconnection with mental health professionals. 
  • Decades of underinvestment have contributed to California schools having only one social worker for every 6,000+ students and having the third highest ratio of students-to-school counselors in the nation.

“There were clear signs of a student mental health crisis before the pandemic,” said Amir Whitaker, senior policy counsel at ACLU SoCal, “Now we are at a State of Emergency level.”

The report includes over 50 anonymous quotes from students across the state regarding their mental wellness. As one student shared, “suicidal thoughts became a problem but I was always scared to speak up about it, so I kept it to myself and relieved my stress with self-harm.”     

The urgency expressed by California students has been echoed by national and international experts. A National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health was declared in October 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics and 77,000 physicians. The United Nations referred to the pandemic as the “tip of the iceberg after years of neglecting child mental health” and the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about the crisis exacerbated by pandemic hardships.

“We started advocating for student mental health in 2020 when I was a sophomore,” said Emily, student with the Youth Liberty Squad, “Two years later, I’m in my senior year and little has changed in our schools.”

The report concludes with a series of recommendations at the state, county, district, and school level developed with input from students. Students identified the need for academic advising to help them get “back on track” from pandemic learning loss and the need for access to highly qualified mental health professionals including school counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. 

Policy recommendations in the report echo this feedback calling on the state to increase and sustain historic investments in mental health services for youth with student input, continued investment in school-county partnerships to provide mental health services to students and families, and support and funding for workforce development programs to increase the available number of mental health professionals. The report also calls on counties to spend at least 22 percent of Mental Health Service Act (Prop 63) funds on investments to support student and youth mental health.