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Contextualizing BIPOC Youth Mental Health

July is National BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, which recognizes the unique mental health issues that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and other underrepresented communities experience due to generations of marginalization and systemic oppression. In light of the past year, with a devastating pandemic and renewed momentum toward anti-racist policy solutions, the need for adequate, culturally-responsive and gender-affirming mental health needs is apparent and as urgent as ever:

  • Black and Latinx children were about 14 percent less likely than white youth to receive treatment for their depression overall, and although they were as likely to have a major depressive episode as white children, they were less likely to receive treatment in inpatient settings (SAMHSA, 2020).

  • LGBTQ+ youth from American Indian and Alaskan Native backgrounds were 2.5 times more likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to their non-Native LGBTQ+ peers. (The Trevor Project, 2020).

But, there is a lack of non-white mental health clinical professionals who can provide those culturally competent mental health services to Black girls: only 4 percent of psychologists in the United States are Black, and overall, racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services than their white counterparts.

“People need to understand how intersectionality impacts experiences.” —H3C Youth Leader

So, how can we better ensure that Black girls and other youth of color receive the culturally competent mental health services they need?

The Need for Hope, Health, and Healing Strategies in Schools

The Children’s Partnership and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute have partnered together to establish the Hope, Healing and Health Collective (H3C), which will expand the availability and accessibility of culturally-competent and gender-responsive mental health services and supports to youth of color, particularly Black girls, Indigenous youth, and Latina girls. This is critical because the mental health needs of Black girls and other students of color often go unnoticed: Between 1991 and 2017, suicide attempts by Black youth increased, while suicide attempts among youth across other race and ethnicities decreased. Suicide deaths among Black girls ages 13-19 increased 182% from 2001 to 2017; and for Black boys, suicide deaths increased 60% over that same period of time. Despite evidence of a demonstrated need, marginalized communities may not engage in mental health services for various, complex reasons—including social stigma, misgivings about the efficacy of treatment, distrust of providers, or because there simply aren’t services available.

However, schools are in a strong position to change this for BIPOC youth: Youth are six times more likely to receive mental health care in schools compared to other community settings. Increasing mental health services in schools could have an extraordinary impact in helping students cope with life stressors in ways that support their wellness, resilience, and healing, rather than express their anxieties and emotional distress through external behaviors that may be problematic or pose risks in a school environment.

Given this, it is critical that schools hire more mental health professionals overall, and it’s especially important that they focus on hiring more social workers and counselors of color. Schools should also focus on adopting culturally-affirming practices to overcome the stigma and hesitancy toward behavioral health services that is common in many communities of color.

“Teachers need to understand the role they play in our lives and our trauma and self-image. Especially at the high school and middle school level.” —H3C Youth Leader

Additionally, schools should pay greater attention to how building power through youth organizing and leadership supports positive youth development, builds on community strengths, and constructs a healthy self and social identity that is reflective of youth’s race, culture, gender, and sexual orientation.

“I hope for young BIPOC teens to have an outlet, professional assistance to teens, without having teens spend their money. I hope for a safe space where teens/youth can learn from each other.” —H3C Youth Leader

How Did We Get Here? Background and Context

Black, Indigenous and Latinx youth have borne the brunt of the consequences of the last year—and centuries of colonization and violence. These historical and community traumas have collectively conspired to disconnect young people from marginalized communities from protective factors that would serve as buffers to toxic stress and poor health and well-being. This is evidenced by alarming trends in children’s mental health, especially for youth with several marginalized identities, including their gender identity, sexual orientation and their race or ethnicity. The Hope, Healing, and Health Collective elevates BIPOC youth voices in addressing their various mental health needs, moving collectively one step forward toward equitable and appropriate change.

Beginning in spring 2020, youth in the United States experienced a cascade of community trauma and stressors. For example, as of winter 2020, Indigenous communities in 23 states have COVID-19 case rates 3.5 times higher than those of white people. The ensuing school closures, social isolation, and dramatically reduced access to services and care--combined with the overall threat of COVID-19 and the collective and individual grief over loved ones who died from it, produced alarming mental health trends for young people. For example, from mid-March to October 2020, emergency room visits for mental health crises in teenagers rose 31 percent (CDC, 2020).

“At first, I didn’t expect two weeks would turn into a year off of school, and a roller coaster of a year.” —H3C Youth Leader

“Online school was challenging, there was a lack of communication with teachers, I was not used to online learning, my grades were dropping, and it brought a lot of stress.” —H3C Youth Leader

We know that youth of color experience both direct and indirect harms to their mental health and well-being from racialized police violence., including immigration enforcement, which triggers a stress response in children and youth that accumulates over time, adding to existing social and cultural harms based on race and ethnicity.

If we want our youth to thrive, especially as paradigms begin to shift in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and greater public support for racial justice, it is imperative that schools, together with young people, develop innovative strategies within school systems to expand opportunities for Black girls and other youth of color to access healing beyond and in tandem with the traditional medical model of mental health.

You can learn more about the Hope, Health, and Healing Collective by checking out this link.

Disclaimer: For confidentiality purposes, the names of our H3C Youth leaders have been omitted from this post.


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