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Home » How Adults Can Help Improve the Mental Health of Black Youth

How Adults Can Help Improve the Mental Health of Black Youth

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Black youth are facing more mental health concerns than ever. As adults, it’s important to listen to them and direct them to seek help.

Being young can be hard enough as is — grades, hormones, and life choices can impact the mental health of any child.

The Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey shows that 44% of teens report “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.”

Despite this, a 2013 review noted that Black children in the United States are not as likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions.

Also, Black teens with mental health conditions are less likely to seek treatment, though they’re more likely to experience higher rates of depressive moods, according to a 2019 study.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has both helped and hindered this statistic.

While the state of Black youth and their mental health seem discouraging, there are ways you can help.

In 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) created an emergency task force to help address unclear data involving suicide in Black youth.

According to the CBC, data shows that the current generation of Black teens and children have higher rates of suicide than previous generations.

And the 2021 Mental Health in American report states that this rate is increasing faster than any other ethnic group. However, historical data showed that Black youth died by suicide at low rates.

Though Black youth experience similar mental health challenges as their non-Black peers, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) named racism as one of the leading causes of the mental health concerns that Black youth face.

According to a 2020 study, Black teens may experience up to five instances of discrimination per day on average.

Research from 2015 shows that interactions like this can lead to higher rates of depression.

Despite these findings, a 2016 study found that Black youth are still half as likely as their white counterparts to seek help for their mental health.

Moreover, when Black youth seek mental health treatment, data shows that their mental health concerns are often misdiagnosed.

A Rutgers University study suggests that Black Americans who have severe depression are more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Another study shows that Black youth ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than other races.

Both studies show that racial bias and a lack of cultural competency cause misdiagnoses.

School-to-prison pipeline

Discrimination that Black teens may face daily often comes in bullying from peers, but sometimes it may come from either conscious or unconscious bias from adults.

According to a Yale University research brief, teachers may keep a more watchful eye on Black students, even when the student is preschool age.

A 2018 report states that Black children are also more likely to be punished more harshly for the same behaviors as their white classmates. This perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline or the instance that youth are more likely to be incarcerated after consistently experiencing harsh school punishments.

Although Black youth aren’t as likely to get mental health treatment as their non-Black peers, it’s not because they don’t need it.

According to a 2010 study, when 465 9th-grade Black students were surveyed, half reported having mental health needs, but only 20% received treatment.

Many factors may contribute to Black youth seeking help less often than their peers.

Cultural stigmas

The CBC task force report notes that Black youth, especially Black boys, tend to seek mental health help as a last resort treatment, as they fear they may be ridiculed by their friends and loved ones.

The report states that Black youth may fear that their friends will tease them for having mental health concerns, and family will encourage them to keep their problems hidden from outsiders.

Distrust in healthcare systems

The same report also states a cultural mistrust in healthcare systems that keeps Black youth from seeking help for their mental health.

The report calls for the need for culturally competent therapists and mental health professionals to better assist their patients who are in underrepresented groups.

A difference in expressing symptoms

According to the CBC task force report, Black youth may not always vocalize their mental health concerns like their white peers do, leading to a lack of proper treatment.

In many cases, Black youth will express symptoms of depression by having behavioral or conduct issues. In other cases, Black youth may show somatic symptoms — or physical symptoms such as a stomach ache.

COVID-19 has added complex layers to the daily lives of individuals across the world.

The pandemic forced businesses and schools to close or operate virtually for an extended period of time. This allowed people — especially youth — to spend more time with their families.

But a 2021 study showed that some Black youth experienced negative emotions toward their social lives being impacted and the need to switch to virtual school environments amidst the pandemic.

Black youth also expressed discomfort in leaving their homes and risking the potential of getting themselves or their loved ones sick.

Racial health disparities during COVID-19

In addition to the change in social environments that Black youth have been experiencing during the pandemic, they also encounter the added health disparities that many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), inequities that may have contributed to increased rates of coronavirus infections in BIPOC communities included:

  • discrimination
  • inaccessibility to healthcare
  • gaps in education and wealth
  • housing inequities

Also, research from 2022 shows that Indigenous, Pacific Islander, and Black Americans have the highest mortality rates for COVID-19. Black Americans account for 14.3% of COVID-19 deaths nationwide, although Black people account for only 12.9% of the population.

Mandates have been helpful

Despite the change in social environments and the disproportionate rates at which BIPOC have been affected by COVID-19, some research suggests that stay-at-home mandates during the pandemic may have been helpful for some youth.

A 2021 study — though focused largely on Hispanic youth — showed evidence that better family functioning contributed to lower mental health symptoms in youth, especially for youth who experienced significant mental health challenges before the pandemic.

Black children can encounter a high amount of mental stress, so it’s important to let them know they’re not alone and that someone is willing to step in and help them.

Talk with your children

Try to speak with your children regularly, giving them a safe space to express themselves and validate their feelings and experiences. This will also give you time to watch for any signs of distress.

According to Mental Health America, some signs to look out for that a child may be having mental health challenges can include:

  • problems with concentration or memory
  • appetite changes
  • feelings of sadness, emptiness, or worthlessness
  • extreme panic or worry
  • restlessness or change in sleeping habits
  • lost interest in hobbies or activities
  • hearing or seeing things that others don’t or other new, repetitive behaviors

Some behaviors may signal more serious mental health complications, such as suicidal thoughts. These can include:

  • obsession with the subject of death
  • increased use of drugs and alcohol or other risky behaviors
  • little or no interest in the future
  • drastic changes in personality

Have open conversations about seeking help

Having open conversations concerning mental health and leaving room for your child to ask questions about how they’re feeling is crucial.

Conversations could be about mental health itself, or they may be about factors that cause mental health challenges, such as racism. And try not to be afraid to ask your child the hard questions, such as if they’re having thoughts of suicide.

When speaking with your child, try to be empathetic and reinforce that their feelings aren’t their fault and that there’s nothing wrong with experiencing negative mental health symptoms.

Try to encourage seeking outside help and, if possible, destigmatize the idea of seeking therapy and treatment.

Seek culturally competent therapists

If your child needs therapy, consider seeking a culturally competent therapist equipped to address their mental health concerns about their identity.

When looking for a culturally competent therapist, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends keeping these questions in mind:

  • Is this therapist familiar with your child’s culture, beliefs, and values?
  • Are they willing to learn more about your child’s culture, beliefs, and values?
  • Do they have experience treating patients with your child’s cultural background?
  • Have they had cultural competency training?
  • How do they plan to include cultural aspects in therapy sessions and plans?
  • Are they familiar with your child’s language or dialect?

Other resources and steps that you can try to help Black youth with mental health concerns include:

For adults:

  • Make sure children are screened for anxiety. According to the U.S. Preventative Service Task Force, children should now be screened for anxiety by a healthcare professional as early as 8 years old. They also recommend that children 12 years old and older be screened for depression.
  • Offer support for grieving and mourning. A 2021 report showed that 1 in 500 children lost a parent to COVID-19. Coupled with the isolation that some children may have felt from stay-at-home orders, it’s important to allow children a way to grieve healthily.
  • Look out for signs of mental health concerns in the classroom. Children spend a large portion of their lives in school. It may be helpful for teachers and other adults to monitor children for signs of negative mental health symptoms and alert caregivers and a school counselor if possible and when necessary.

For youth:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can call Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English or 888-628-9454 for Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? You can call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line. You can call 321-800-3323, text HAND to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
  • The Steve Fund. For a culturally competent Crisis Text Line counselor, you can text STEVE to 741741.

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