NASHP Identifies State Strategies to Address Mental Health and Education Inequities

closeup black young male student 11_2_2017State policymakers increasingly recognize the need to address the social determinants of health — housing, employment, education, and income — to reduce health care costs and improve population health. Educational attainment, for example, provides dividends for overall health. People with higher levels of education generally live longer and experience healthier lives.

The quality of education a student receives impacts educational attainment and overall health. Evidence shows the overrepresentation of certain groups of students in separate classrooms or other settings of poorer quality overwhelmingly affects students of color. Teachers have identified students of color as having disabilities at higher rates than white students, with research documenting racial bias as influencing their decisions to remove students from the classroom. Students removed from mainstream education settings are less likely to make progress, build skills, and/or return to general educational settings. Black and Latino students are more likely to be affected by disproportionality.[1]

Disproportionality occurs when any racial or ethnic group’s numbers in special education classes or programs are statistically higher than other students.

States are uniquely positioned to promote the mental health and educational achievement of all children by addressing the mechanisms that underlie racial and ethnic differences in mental disorder onset and persistence, and the causes and consequences of disproportionality in out-of-regular classroom settings, such as resource rooms, separate schools, or separate facilities. Using the resources of a variety of agencies, including public health, Medicaid, mental health, and education, can address disproportionality. Drawing from interviews with state officials conducted in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Disparities Research Unit, the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) identified state policy levers and programs, including mental health consultation, data sharing, convening authority, systemic interventions and supports, that states can use to eliminate mental health disparities.

State Levers to Address Disproportionality in Educational Settings

  • Mental health consultation programs: Minnesota, Delaware, Colorado, Ohio and Connecticut utilize mental health consultation programs that can support efforts to address disproportionality. Mental health consultation varies across states, but commonly mental health providers support child care professionals and teachers, including Head Start, Part C Early Intervention Program, and child care workers, to improve their ability to identify and ameliorate mental health issues in children. States are also investing in training resources to improve the skills of early childhood mental health clinicians. Mental health consultants are typically funded by Medicaid agencies, education agencies, state general revenue or federal funds, or grants, and may receive cultural awareness training designed to improve their skills while reducing implicit cultural and racial bias. With leadership from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and other federal health and education agencies, states increasingly expect mental health consultants to carry out their consultative and clinical services in ways that help teachers provide supportive learning environments for all children.
  • Data usage: State departments of education are required to monitor, report, and address disproportionality based on race and ethnicity as required by the US Department of Education’s Equity in Individual with Disabilities Education Act final regulation effective July, 1, 2018. Some state officials mentioned having a longitudinal data system to track disproportionality would be helpful, and would provide an opportunity for state health and education agencies to collaborate.
  • Advisory groups: Colorado, Minnesota, and Delaware benefit from advisory groups that facilitate interagency collaboration that can address disproportionality. In Minnesota, an interagency task force including the Medicaid agency (Department of Human Services), Department of Health, and Department of Education promotes coordinated efforts to achieve equitable, universal early childhood screening and referrals. Minnesota’s task force laid the foundation to include mental health consultation services within its school-linked grants under its early childhood mental health infrastructure grants. Delaware, Connecticut, and Colorado were able to generate statewide attention to disproportionality by addressing school suspensions and expulsions. Connecticut became the first state to prohibit expulsions in publically-funded preschools and has recently instituted policies to ensure accountability.
  • Ohio’s Cultural and Linguistic Competency Plan: Ohio’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services instituted a statewide Cultural and Linguistic Competency Plan to promote health equity and eliminate disparities. Ohio provides cultural competence and linguistic trainings to state employees that reference the Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services Standards. Additionally, the plan highlights incentives for providing culturally-competent services. Culturally-competent services can result in lowered health care costs stemming from a reduced number of medical errors, unnecessary or avoidable treatments, and lower numbers of missed medical visits. They also can support new business and revenue-generating opportunities, improved performance on quality measures, and alignment with Medicare and Medicaid, which have placed priorities on cultural and linguistic competency. The state also developed a business case for achieving health equity cited in its Cultural and Linguistic Competency Plan.

Mental health inequities can result from disproportionality and are systemic. Addressing this issue involves:

  • Unraveling policies and practices that negatively impact students of color of all ages; and
  • Implementing systemic interventions and supports to identifying and assisting individual children with specific needs.

As demonstrated by numerous states, state health officials can use several mental health policy levers and strategies to improve students’ overall health and success in school.


This blog was supported by the Massachusetts General Hospital Disparities Research Unit.

1. Green, J.G., McLaughlin, K.A., Alegria, M., Bettini, E., Gruber, M.J., Kwong, L., Sampson, N., Zaslavsky, A.M., Xuan, Z., & Kessler, R.C. (unpublished manuscript). Ethnic/racial inequities in educational placement for youth with psychiatric disorders.