Black youth are disproportionately more likely not to receive treatment for the same mental illness symptoms as their white peers — or to be funneled into the juvenile justice system in response to those symptoms. What’s more, even when youth of color do get access to care, they are less likely to be treated by a provider of their cultural background, less likely to receive behavioral health care for an accurate diagnosis, and less likely to encounter a provider with specific training and skill in culturally competent care.
I often wonder if the cost of our failing to act on the mental health needs of Black youth and youth of color is losing a generation of healthy, thriving minds. Can we afford to allow our children to grow up in a society that limits or devalues their potential? While we may not consider ourselves active participants in devaluing young people, if we do not work toward uplifting and supporting them from the inside out, we inadvertently hinder their ability to prosper.
I honor the statistics that tell us that Black youth and other youth of color are indeed resilient. Think about this: Given disproportionate exposure to discrimination, racism, police brutality, school suspensions and expulsions, and intersectional gendered discrimination, we would expect Black youth to exhibit higher rates of depression and anxiety compared with their white peers. But that’s not the case. Instead, the rates of depression and anxiety in Black and white youth are quite similar (with some noted differences)—and yet, there are glaring differences in who receives care, and in the quality of care received.
All of this feels very heavy at times, but I remain hopeful, because I am an active participant in so many coalitions and organizations that are working on promising solutions. I was honored to join a working group for the Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health formed by the Congressional Black Caucus and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, which introduced the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act. My colleagues in the working group—all experts in policy, clinical training, research, and advocacy—and the many organizations on the ground working on this problem—like the organization I founded, the AAKOMA Project, as well as The Boris L. Henson Foundation, Africa’s Mental Health Matters, and the National Black Justice Coalition, to share a partial list—are committed to a more just mental health landscape for Black youth and youth of color.
If you’re wondering what you can do to support the mental health of Black young people and young people of color, here are some suggestions:
Finally, I hope you will always remember what both I and the AAKOMA Project always promote: mental health research and care for all, and, most importantly, that healing starts in the heart.