(WORDINBLACK.COM) – COVID-19 has already claimed more than 410,000 American lives, nearly 70,000 of them Black lives. While Black Americans comprise about 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, the rate of Black COVID deaths is higher — about 16.2 percent.
Adding to that toll, a growing number of African American youth are attempting suicide, triggered by the psychological impact of the pandemic and the times we’re living in.
On Martin Luther King Day this year, a panel of Black psychiatrists, psychologists, educators and health care professionals concluded that Black children and teens “face unprecedented challenges to their mental well-being during this time of COVID-19 and racial justice reckoning.”
Already hit harder by COVID-19 and its economic impact, Black students “are falling further behind in learning than their white counterparts,” the experts concluded.
Attempted suicides among Black high school students were already climbing before COVID-19 — their suicide rate jumped 73 percent between 1991 and 2017 while falling among other racial and ethnic groups, according to CDC data analyzed by the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty, Policy and Research.
The Institute, which hosted “Ring The Alarm: Resources for Mental Health and Black Youth” on January 18, said Black depression spiked after COVID-19. In June 2020, 15.1 percent of Black Americans and 25.5 percent of people aged 18-24 reported seriously considering suicide during the previous 30 days, compared with 10.1 percent of the U.S. population. And more than 43 percent of Black Americans 18 and over reported mental health or behavioral health symptoms related to COVID-19.
Dr. Lenore A. Tate, a veteran clinical psychologist in Sacramento who works with Fortune School of Education and the Sacramento City Unified School District, has seen the effects of the pandemic on Black students first hand.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Black kids 10-14 after homicide,” Dr. Tate said. The number of mental health referrals per week she’s receiving “has catapulted” from about five to more than 15 among students ages 10-19.
“They’re coming in for anxiety and depression due to isolation, lack of social connectedness, and challenges at home and school. They’re worried about grades, worried about tomorrow, worried about problems at home,” Dr. Tate said.
She added that when a student feels socially isolated, “it diminishes their psycho-social development because you can’t expand your universe outside your family, and it takes a toll.”
Students have different learning styles, and while some fall behind academically and don’t log into classes, others have created learning “bubbles” of about four families who work together to help keep their kids on task, Dr. Tate said. “Some have hired college students to help tutor their kids.”
But left to their own devices, some students may not get a chance to go outside and lose interest in going to school on-line. Poverty and lack of resources also create stress. Dr. Tate has seen depression rise among students who don’t have access to schools, computers, consistent internet and enough food. “It doesn’t help if they live in a home surrounded by a lot of chaos and no consistent support for home-learning,” she added.
Dr. Tate treated an 11-year-old girl whose grandfather died of COVID. She said the “vivacious” girl became depressed and said she didn’t want to live anymore. “She stopped talking and lost interest in many of her daily activities including friends and sports,” Dr. Tate said. “The girl’s mom, who’d lost her dad, was like ‘get over it,’ but everybody grieves differently. I gave the girl an opportunity to express and validate her feelings verbally and through art and let her know she is not alone.”
Another isolated, lonely18-year-old girl came in for a “mental health check-up” because she was numb to the tragedies in the news and said she was annoyed and frustrated, and angry over being locked down and was drinking. “I was able to provide her with some hope and realize life under COVID wasn’t about immediate gratification.”
The depression caused by COVID-19 has been compounded by the climate of racism and hatred fostered by ex-President Trump, and the police killings of innocent Black people across America.
The lynching of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor and others “is taking a tremendous toll on Black students’ mental health,” Dr. Tate said. “More kids are sad, depressed and anxious. The whole world is experiencing trauma, but in the Black community in particular I think we have a heightened awareness of the impact of racism, racial bias, police brutality and structural inequality,” Dr. Tate said.
“COVID has built on all these violent and threatening events, and vice-versa, as students become more isolated and withdrawn. We have already made racism a public health issue. I ask students, ‘On a scale of 1-5, are you feeling hopeless, helpless, worthless?’ Anything over two should be addressed.”
Because of a lack of culturally competent mental health professionals who see Black youth “at risk” instead of “at promise,” and may be too quick to call Child Protective Services when they enter Black homes, Black families often don’t seek out treatment until there’s a crisis, Dr. Tate said.
“In the Black community we don’t talk about suicide — that’s not on the table. We don’t like talking about mental health, either. The two primary reasons that Black youth suicide is increasing are lack of access to mental health care and underdiagnosing depression in our children.” White teens are more likely to get and stay in treatment than Black teens, Dr. Tate said.
In an effort to provide support, the Sierra Health Foundation, a private philanthropy based in Sacramento, recently awarded four trauma and wellness grants to local organizations, De. Tate said.
Recognizing your feelings and that you are not alone is a step in the right direction Dr. Tate said, “because this isn’t going to change tomorrow. When students continue to see images of inequity, injustice, brutality and violence against them, particularly by adults who are supposed to protect them, it’s an affirmation that many white people don’t care about us or our lives, that we are not worth what a white person is worth, that the justice system is for them and not us.”
The more students feel isolated and the more their families are experiencing trauma from COVID, racism, loss of jobs or family strife, “the more time they spend on their screens which is also impacting their health because a lot of the information they’re receiving is negative,” said Dr. Tate, who has an 18-year-old daughter.
“One of the recommendations I make as a psychologist is you don’t need to watch more than 30 minutes of news a day, according to the CDC and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health). Any more is just too much negative information coming to people who are isolated and already anxious and depressed by COVID and police brutality.”
“Students need to understand that police brutality and racism have been around for 400 years since the first slaves were brought to America,” Dr. Tate said, going back to the slave catchers and overseers. Too often, it appears that Black people are “policed” while white people are “protected,” Dr. Tate said. This bias extends to schools where Black kids are often kicked out or suspended when white kids are more likely to be reprimanded for the same behaviors.
“We can keep our children mentally healthy and build resilience in spite of what we see on TV by reinforcing Black accomplishments and heroes,” Dr. Tate said. Teachers, parents and family members can help build their self-esteem and self-worth and teach them how to live as safely as possible.
“By increasing our graduation rates, giving us jobs and helping us create businesses can build resilience, and resilience equates with hope. We know there is light at the end of the tunnel of trauma.”
Dr. Tate said most employers have Employment Assistance Programs that provide about six free therapy sessions. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. NAMI (the National Alliance for the Mental Ill) can be reached 916-567-0163.
By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Correspondent
The OBSERVER has joined nine of the nation’s leading Black publishers to come together to reimagine the Black press in America. Our first official initiative is the launch of Word in Black, a news collaborative unlike anything we have seen in the industry. The mission could not be more important: Word in Black frames the narrative and fosters solutions for racial inequities in America. The group will publish stories on important issues such as voter suppression, inequities in education and healthcare, reimagining public safety and more. The following story is part of the collaborative. For more information, visit www.wordinblack.com