Polls indicate mental health of children remains a concern

49% of parents very or somewhat concerned, down from 60% last March

PARENTS IN MASSACHUSETTS have a front row seat to the burgeoning mental health crisis among children across the state. A series of polls from The MassINC Polling Group finds parents are equally concerned about mental and emotional health as they are with academics, and want schools to continue to play a heightened role in addressing the crisis. But schools’ mental health resources are already stretched thin. Fortunately, and unique to this moment, the state government actually has financial resources in the form of American Rescue Plan Act dollars to put to work in our school districts.

Nearly half of parents (49 percent) in a November poll of K-12 parents were “very” or “somewhat concerned” about their child’s mental and emotional health. This is down only moderately from the 60 percent who were concerned back in March of 2021, when most students were still learning remotely or in hybrid models. The latest figures reveal concern is especially high among parents whose children need additional school support. Parents with children on an Individualized Education Plan (67 percent) and parents of English Learners (68 percent) were particularly likely to say they are concerned about their child’s mental and emotional health.

Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers approved a $4 billion COVID relief bill, including millions dedicated to education and mental health, from the American Rescue Plan Act funding. These funds will bolster mental and behavioral health supports as well as educational resources across the state.

The November poll also looked at ARPA funding in three specific areas: on academics, mental and emotional health, and college readiness or post-graduation plans. Parents ranked items within each area, identifying their top spending priorities. The results offer guidance on how parents would like to see ARPA dollars spent within each priority area.

Within mental and emotional health, 36 percent say incorporating mental health awareness into the curriculum is their top priority. Another 29 percent prioritize hiring more mental health counselors, while 26 percent focused on making mental health screenings available for students. In particular, parents who identify as Black (33 percent) and Asian (32 percent) are more likely to support prioritizing mental health screenings for students.

Indeed, worry over mental and emotional health rivals academic concerns. Nearly half of parents (46 percent) are equally concerned about their child’s academic progress this school year as they are with their child’s mental and emotional health. Another third of parents are more concerned about their child’s mental and emotional health than academics this school year.

These figures have been consistent since March 2021, pointing to parents’ focus on mental and emotional health. As one parent mentioned in the January focus groups, “not having any social interaction is huge…I want to say that was the biggest, biggest problem. It was weighing heavily on her…It was you know, emotional, I think. It’s almost more than the academic part, yeah.”

Another parent, referring to the impact of remote learning, said: “I can’t even tell you. He’s a different child, a different student. He doesn’t come home smiling anymore.”

Parents also link their child’s mental and emotional health to their academic success. Back in May 2021, 77 percent of parents whose child had fallen behind said mental and emotional health support would be helpful in catching their children up academically, including 42 percent who called it “very helpful.” In particular, parents who identified as Black (47 percent), Latino (56 percent) and Asian (47 percent) were more likely to say these supports would be “very helpful” compared to parents who identified as White (39 percent).

Despite this call for extra support from parents of color, in the March poll, parents who identified as Black (33 percent) were more likely than White parents (26 percent) to say mental health screeners are not available at their child’s school. Likewise, 27 percent each of Black and Latino parents say information about mental and emotional health resources are not available, compared with only 18 percent of white parents. This could be due to a lack of availability of resources in schools due to increased need, a lack of awareness about what is offered at their child’s school, or services not offered altogether. Regardless, this means some students aren’t being connected with the resources they need.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. While mental and emotional health challenges remain, parents also acknowledge the upsides of returning to school. Over half of parents (54 percent) reported that the return to school this fall has had a “major positive impact” on their child. In an open-ended follow-up question, over half of parents (52 percent) cited socialization as the main reason, given that their children can interact with their classmates, friends, and teachers.

As one parent described, “The return to school this year has had a positive impact on my child because he is able to interact with his peers as well as his teachers in person rather than being isolated at home over a computer.”

Meet the Author

Zayna Basma

Research associate, MassINC Polling Group
Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
After nearly two years navigating education in a pandemic, it is clear that mental and emotional health will remain a priority for parents and schools. Now that lawmakers have passed the ARPA spending bill, it is up to our elected officials, administrators, and advocates to support our schools and ensure mental and emotional health is a robust part of our students’ educational experience.

Zayna Basma is a research associate and Maeve Duggan is research director at the MassINC Polling Group.