When it comes to seeking help with mental health, Black children lag far behind their white counterparts – despite the fact that the number of mental health issues is higher in Black children.
A 2016 studyfrom the International Journal of Health Servicesfound that Black and Latino children made 47-58% fewer visits to a mental health professional than their white counterparts. This sets black children up for what Dr. Marva Robinson, a licensed clinical psychologist, calls a “permanent domino effect.”
“They usually end up in punitive systems—suspensions, detentions, kicked out of school, expelled or placed in alternative schools,” Robinson said. “And so, that leads to a very negative trajectory from that point forward. So, higher dropout rates, lower paying jobs, more likely to end up in the criminal system and it just goes on from there.”
But there is a way to tackle this disturbing trend, by changing our mindset about mental health. The Defender looks at ten things to know about dealing with mental health and children.
- Mental illness does not equal weakness.Many African-Americans have been taught to embody strength no matter what. In the African-American community, many people misunderstand what a mental health condition is and don’t talk about the topic. This lack of knowledge leads many to believe that a mental health condition is a personal weakness or some sort of punishment from God. African-Americans may be reluctant to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with such conditions.
“We’ve got to change our mindset where we shame people who are mentally ill. We don’t shame people with cancer or diabetes, or any other illness. We shouldn’t do that with mental illness, especially when it comes to children,” said licensed family therapist Alva Baldwin. “We have to get people to see there is nothing ‘weak’ about being sick.”
- Silence the shame.Ironically, with our history — and what we continue to go through as people — African-Americans deserve mental-health treatment and medication the most. Whether it’s Black families constantly struggling to live above the poverty line or Black men just trying to live every day without getting shot and killed by the police, Black people are under a constant barrage of stress.
“We need to stop acting like feeling depressed or sad or helpless is something you should be embarrassed about or ashamed of — and we definitely need to make sure children know that, so they’ll never have to consider killing themselves. No child should end their life before they’ve even started it,” Baldwin said.
- Suicide is not a ‘white-people’ issue.In African-American culture, suicide and mental illness are regularly perceived as issues that mainly affect the Anglo-American populace. Black people have been known to distance themselves from psychiatrists, therapists, or any other mental-health professionals.
- Don’t rely on just religion.Religion is a large part of many African-American families and while we know God is capable of anything, he gave us doctors for a reason. Pastors aren’t medical experts. If spirituality is an important part of your life, your spiritual practices can be a strong part of your treatment plan. Your spiritual leaders and faith community can provide support and reduce isolation. Be aware that sometimes faith communities can be a source of distress and stigma if they are misinformed about mental health or do not know how to support families dealing with these conditions.
- Seek help.Of course you want to rely on your family, community and faith for support, but you might also need to seek professional help. When children don’t get the mental health care they need, it affects them for life. And, in the case of children in high needs-low resource schools, this is especially true. In the absence of the ability to provide mental health care, the solutions schools tend to fall back on are punitive.
“When students “act out” in ways that disrupt the classroom, and there is no counselor to sit them down and discover the underlying trauma that caused the behavior, the result is often that the child is given a time out, detention, or suspension,” Robinson added.
- Recognize the signs.Many African-Americans also have trouble recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, leading to underestimating the effects and impact of mental health conditions. Some may think of depression as “the blues” or something to snap out of. Because of the lack of information about mental health issues, it’s not always clear where to find help when you may need it. Understanding the signs can hel
“The trickle-down effect starts from understanding and recognizing the signs of mental illness,” Robinson continued. “So dropping a pencil is seen as doing it on purpose and being malicious, or a child having tantrums is not being seen as maybe depressed, but just acting out for no reason or attention-seeking. And so, it’s that initial stage where they’re told that their symptoms aren’t clinical symptoms, but bad behaviors.”
- Catch it early.Advocates and professionals say that catching mental health struggles early and getting kids the support they need is crucial for their lifelong trajectory.
“Punishing people for mental illness or addiction is both inhumane and ineffective,” Dr. Steffie Woolhandler author of the 2016 Journal study, said. “The lack of care for minority youth is the real crime.”
- Get the right provider. Conscious or unconscious bias from providers and lack of cultural competence result in misdiagnosis and poorer quality of care for African Americans.
African Americans, especially women, are more likely to experience and mention physical symptoms related to mental health problems. For example, you may describe bodily aches and pains when talking about depression. A health care provider who is not culturally competent and trained with young people might not recognize these as symptoms of a mental health condition.
- Know the difference between normal teen angst and mental illness. Oftentimes, parents may dismiss their child’s mental issues as normal childhood behaviors. But it’s important to know your child’s levels of emotions. If they go to emotional extremes, continue to monitor them. It may not just be hormones. And above all else, listen to your kids.
“Sometimes your child will tell you, ‘Mom, something is wrong.’ As parents, particularly middle class parents, it’s not unheard of to take the ‘what do you have to be depressed about?’ approach. You think because you have given your child a good life, there’s nothing to have any emotional issues over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mental illness does not discriminate based on socioeconomic status,” Baldwin said.
- Don’t let money stand in your way. If finances are preventing you from finding help, contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to see what services you qualify for. You can find contact information online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or by calling the National Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).