Mental health care is increasingly necessary in the current social and political atmosphere, especially for children and teens. With age, their sources of stress continue to expand while social and structural obstacles bar them from adequately managing them. Lack of support amidst broader and individual struggles can cause a mental and emotional toll with devastating effects. This is becoming more evident with the rise of suicide rates among Black adolescents. While suicide rates have declined for most racial groups, they have increased among Black youths (CDC). A 2021 study found that “from 2013 to 2019 the suicide rate of Black boys and men 15 to 24 years old rose by 47 percent, and by 59 percent for Black girls and women of the same age” (New York Times).
Young Black people’s formative years are often shaped by discrimination, stereotypes, and individual and collective traumas. And historically, access to mental health treatment for Black people has been jeopardized by undertreatment, misdiagnoses, and overall neglect by the healthcare industry.
The United States has a history of weaponizing mental health against Black people under the guise of scientific inquiry. Before the Civil War, white physicians concocted a disorder called “drapetomania,” said to be a mental illness that made enslaved people flee captivity (Ferris State University). Schizophrenia diagnoses served a similar purpose. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, schizophrenia was regarded as a relatively harmless condition primarily plaguing middle-class white women. In the 1960s, the American public and scientific inquirers began to characterize schizophrenia as a violent social disease. Research articles perpetuated this narrative, asserting that schizophrenia was characterized by aggression and volatility attributed to Black men (Counseling Today). The condition was described as “protest psychosis,” in which Black men developed aggressive and violent emotions toward white people after embracing the views of several Black activist groups. Today, African Americans are three to five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia (National Library of Medicine). Additionally, Black teenagers’ mood disorders are frequently misdiagnosed as behavioral or psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. While a white child may be diagnosed as depressed for not participating or being engaged in class discussions, a Black child may be labeled defiant (Child Mind Institute).
Personal feelings of shame and stigma may deter youth from seeking mental health treatment. Many young people struggle with effectively managing their emotions, which manifests in a unique way for young Black boys. They are taught that sadness and vulnerability are weaknesses. This leads them to suppress their sadness and express it as a more socially acceptable response to trauma: rage (AAMC). Continuously suppressing emotions can make it more difficult to self-identify and work through feelings, making it harder to recognize that depression or other mood disorders may be at the root of one’s mental health issues (Healthline).
Many studies acknowledge that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents, but few examine it through a racial lens (CDC). A small number of academics study the intersection of health disparities and structural racism, but they are significantly underfunded. Within the last few years, more funding has been funneled into studies related to Black youth suicide due to a 2019 report presented to Congress identifying gaps in research and policy (New York Times). One of the recipients is Success Over Stress, a suicide intervention program that teaches African American youth in Chicago how to identify and effectively manage stress to improve mental health.
Success Over Stress acknowledges unique stressors for Black youth that don’t exist for their white peers: anti-Blackness, disproportionate rates of poverty, and continued exposure to racist violence (Forbes). These factors coact to accumulate mass trauma among Black people passed down from older generations, also known as intergenerational trauma.
Awareness and access to mental health resources for Black youth are vital. Since mental health care for children primarily occurs in schools via school psychologists or counselors, it should be commonplace for Black students to have trusting relationships with their guidance counselors. This poses a challenge for low-income districts, where very few resources exist and in-school professionals are also in short supply (New York Times). Here, the issue is not only the shame and stigma deterring Black youth from seeking treatment, but whether culturally responsive, non-punitive treatment is even available. There is a nationwide shortage of mental health professionals, and the numbers are even lower among low-income communities of color.
Supporting Black youth’s mental health begins with reducing racial biases in the healthcare industry. The most direct solution is to increase the supply of Black mental health professionals. Resources like Black Mental Health’s Directory of Black Psychiatrists make it easy for people to find Black healthcare providers in their immediate area. The LoveLand Foundation, an organization that provides mental health resources to communities of color, directly addresses this issue through its therapy fund for Black women and girls.
Although there is an increasing number of researchers and medical professionals focused on reducing suicide rates among Black youth, there is still a need for increased funding and awareness. Strides are being made to intervene on a systematic level, but there is still a need to mitigate the stigma that exists on an individual level.
• Suicide rates among Black youth are continuously rising.
• Black youth’s reluctance to seek mental health treatment is largely due to stigma and historical distrust of the healthcare industry.
• Increasing suicide rates among Black youth result from individual and mass trauma.