Black youth face rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide

Alison Yin for EdSource

While almost all students have faced mental health challenges during the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety are higher among black students.

Almost everyone has experienced some degree of anxiety or depression due to the pandemic. But for young black men who also face persistent racism and widening inequalities, the current moment has led to an acute crisis in mental health.

The suicide rate among black youth, which for years was lower than that of Asian and white students, has doubled since 2014 and is now double the state average, far outpacing all other groups, according to the Department of California Public Health. Twelve out of every 100,000 black youth ages 18 to 24 committed suicide in 2020. In 2014, the suicide rate for blacks was about 25% lower than that of white students and 15% lower than the rate among white students. asian students.

Black youth are also at increased risk for depression, anxiety and stress due to the pandemic and the recent spotlight on police violence against Black people, according to a December advisory from the US Surgeon General. Climate change and economic uncertainty also play a role.

“The data is not absolutely surprising. … Black students are in a national crisis,” said April Clay, chief of counseling and psychological services at California State University, Los Angeles. “Many Black students are experiencing crippling anxiety and pain. It’s hard to talk about it, and it’s hard for them to find help.”

Black people in general have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, with higher mortality rates, higher hospitalization rates and less access to health care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked months of intense media coverage of police brutality and racism, which some young black men said they found deeply stressful.

“The disparate impact of Covid, plus these additional pressures, have pushed black youth over the edge,” said Lishaun Francis, director of behavioral health at Children Now, a research and advocacy organization that recently released a report detailing the challenges facing youth face in California, including mental health struggles among black youth.

Misdiagnoses also affect young black men who struggle with mental health, Francis said. A Black student who misbehaves in class too often faces discipline rather than counseling, and Black people with more serious mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, are more likely to end up in police custody than psychiatric treatment.

For Destiny Tillear, a junior at Middle College High School in South Los Angeles, the nadir came in the spring of 2020. Her mother, a postal worker, and her stepfather, who works at an oil refinery, worked full-time in person, which left Destiny in charge of her 2-year-old brother all day while she was away learning. One morning she was taking a timed English test when her brother started crying because he needed a diaper change. As the timer ticked down, Destiny tended to the crying child, hoping he didn’t fail the test.

In fact, her grades dropped during remote learning, which only exacerbated her feelings of despair. She had hopes of attending a top-tier university followed by law school, but that dream seemed to fade as the pandemic progressed.

“One day (when school went back to in-person instruction) I was stressed about grades and started crying at school,” Destiny said. “A counselor saw me and took me to his office. She didn’t judge me at all, she just listened. It definitely worked. I saw her a couple of times. I am very grateful that my school has offered that.”

These days, Destiny finds solace in reading, sometimes a book a day, and watching her little brother grow up. She has adjusted her college expectations and knows that she can always see a counselor when she needs one.

Joy Menh, a junior at Humboldt State University, said college has been particularly challenging during the pandemic. The daughter of immigrants from Liberia, she felt especially isolated during remote learning, trying to balance her studies with work, financial concerns and worrying that her family would contract Covid. Then the police murder of George Floyd happened.

“I can argue with it, but it’s very hard for me to see these black deaths continue to happen,” he said. “There’s so much craziness, it’s hard for me to concentrate.”

He found Humboldt’s counseling office helpful, though he thinks colleges should remove some of the barriers, like long delays in seeing a counselor, for students who need help, especially those in crisis. He also found solace in helping other black students at his school, where he works at the campus’ multicultural center.

“I try to surround myself with friends and do things that keep me hopeful, like focusing on school and planning for the future,” Menh said, noting that she hopes to go to law school eventually.

The East Oakland Youth Development Center has been serving the mental health of Black youth for over 40 years. But the pandemic has ushered in unprecedented challenges, said CEO Regina Jackson. For over a year, students were unable to connect with friends and many were stuck at home in crowded and stressful circumstances. To cope, some students withdrew emotionally, while others acted out.

“Let’s face it, this pandemic has impacted us acutely, especially those of us who are impoverished,” Jackson said.

To help, the center has been doing what it has always done: providing a safe place for students to talk, do art projects, play outside, study and relax. During the worst months of the pandemic, when the center closed, Jackson and her staff sent art supplies and books to children’s homes, hosted parties online and encouraged them to talk about the stress they were experiencing.

“We treat our young people as if they were the subject of their own stories. We allow them to express themselves freely,” Jackson said. “It’s about confidence, empowerment, curiosity. …That will bring you back from giving up. … When it’s working, we can see the smiles through the masks.”

One of Jackson’s students, Myah White, said seeking help can sometimes be difficult because of the stigma associated with mental illness. Myah said that can add another layer to young people’s feelings of isolation.

“Depression and anxiety are things that are not always talked about in the black community,” said White, a senior at St. Joseph High School in Alameda. “Our parents are dealing with their own trauma. You just want to be ‘normal’. With so many difficulties, we want to be known for our perseverance and strength.”

White found relief in becoming involved in equity and diversity issues at her school, which allowed her to speak out about the complicated and frustrating emotions she was experiencing and to educate her non-black classmates on issues related to racism. The last two years have inspired her to change her career plans to become a pediatrician serving low-income and black communities.

Clay, of Cal State Los Angeles, said one way to reduce stigma is to normalize conversations about mental health at school. Schools should encourage Black students to talk about their feelings in an empowering way, so they feel less alone and more confident in describing conditions that cause them stress. Schools should also hire more Black counselors, who Black students are more likely to trust and feel comfortable trusting.

Like White, Selina Villesanor, a junior at Oakland High School, also changed her plans due to the difficulties she faced during the pandemic. In March 2020, a close uncle died of Covid and Villasanor sank into depression. She felt that her “world was falling apart” and she had nowhere to go for help.

Introspection and counseling helped her get ahead.

“The pandemic caused a spiritual journey for me. It showed me who I am, my strengths and weaknesses,” she said. He now uses that knowledge to help his friends, supporting those who need help. She has also taken up a new hobby: baking. “I used to get angry. Now I make some cookies and cupcakes that I know everyone will love. Cooking helped me cope.”

Villasanor hopes to study psychology and become a therapist for young people. And someday start your own kitchen business.

Leroy Mitchell, manager of mental health training at the Black Mental and Emotional Health Collective in Los Angeles, said young black men were struggling with anxiety and depression long before the pandemic and Floyd’s murder. But recent events have shed light on his plight.

In schools, he said, the most important thing teachers and other adults on campus can do is listen. If students don’t open up, adults should try different approaches, such as asking them to play a song that expresses their feelings, make a piece of art, or show TikTok videos that reflect their emotions.

“We have to acknowledge the ways that our black youth are experiencing mental health challenges,” Mitchell said. “But it’s not just listening. We have to put into practice what they say and hold ourselves accountable.”

As bleak as life seems now, Mitchell is confident that this generation will endure and even thrive.

“We are in a crisis. But I am a strong believer in black youth,” she said. “We come from a legacy of survival. We come from a legacy of healing. We just have to make room for them to practice their brilliance. … Black youth just ‘being’ is the most beautiful thing I can think of.”

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