Pandemic puts Black youths’ resilience to the test

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Nearly 20% of U.S. youth today deal with mental health issues. Mental illness is defined as “having a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder, including mild, moderate and serious mental illness.”

Children’s Minnesota said COVID-19 has made the need for addressing mental health issues even more important than ever before. Anxiety, depression and suicide rates among Black children and teens have risen in recent years, but Black families seek and use mental health services at a much lower rate than White families. 

Barriers for Blacks accessing mental health care include stigma and fears about mental health primarily and health care generally, parental mental health struggles, and lack of knowledge and access to resources.

According to the nonprofit Mental Health America (MHA), a community-based advocacy and education organization, mental illness occurs in U.S. Blacks overall with about the same or less frequency than in Whites. However, the institutional and individual racism that Blacks experience adds to the prevalence of mental health issues among Black children and adults.

MHA ranks Minnesota sixth overall in the U.S. in lower mental health prevalence and seventh in access to care. It also ranks the state 28th in mental illness prevalence among youth ages 12-17 with at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and 41st with youth with a severe major depressive episode.

A recent Cigna national study noted that young children’s resilience is highlighted by five key factors: exposure to diversity, sense of community, academic aspirations, family support, interests outside of the home, and good physical and mental health. Children with lower resilience are more likely to have lower self-esteem, perform poorly in school, and need mental or behavioral health treatment.

The study also introduced a “resiliency curve”: 45% of children ages 5-10 are considered resilient, but this resilience decreases as they grow older to 35% at ages 11-13 and 22% at ages 18-23.

“How resilient are Black youth these days amidst a pandemic?” asked MPR News last week in its latest “In Focus” series. MPR mental health reporter Alisa Roth led a Dec. 2 virtual panel discussion, which was rebroadcast on MPR Dec. 3.

“It’s been a rough year,” said Roth, referring to traumatic events like the killing of George Floyd in May and the COVID-19 pandemic that have disapportionately affected Black teens and young adults locally and statewide.

Minneapolis therapist Marlee Dorsey, who started her Reviving Roots Therapy and Wellness private practice in April, pointed out that young people often don’t know how to seek mental health help when needed. “I think the youth are given very little power. They’re told what to do, go to school, what to eat and what to wear,” she noted.

“If we’re looking to youth to have these conversations, we are putting a lot of pressure on them for something adults should be responsible for. It takes a great deal of courage…to stand up against your group of family members to say they are having and need help with mental health,” said Dorsey.

“This pandemic is taking a toll on the Black community from a physical and mental health standpoint,” said 23-year-old Devin Newby, a former University of Minnesota student who works at Children’s Minnesota just blocks away from where Floyd was killed.

Mental health “isn’t a normal conversation we have in our community,” 23-year-old Lewis McCaleb told the MPR audience. 

Minneapolis Public Schools Counseling Services Manager Derek Francis added that it has been hard for Black students to tell adults about their problems, especially adults who don’t look like them. Distance learning hasn’t helped either, he reported. 

“I miss the interaction,” admitted Francis in an MSR pre-event interview. “I miss meeting with students in person.”

Minnesota ranks second in the nation with students who are identified with a mental illness that affects their ability to succeed in school, according to MHA.

“Mental [illness] is undeniable” among many students, he continued. “Their routines are so far off and the anxiety rates have increased because students don’t know when things are going to return to normal. There is a lot of day-to-day life trauma that is happening during the pandemic that [is] affecting Students of Color.”

Francis recalled that pre-pandemic when school buildings were open, “We never really provided the space to allow people to get to know culture, ethnicity and norms that are different from theirs.”

Black people “have a great deal of power and resilience,” Dorsey told the MSR. “Talking to a primarily White audience [on MPR], I want to make sure that we’re not just [portraying] these Black youth as people to feel bad for. Think of them as people with a great deal of power, a great deal of resilience, and people who’ll continue to do what they need to do.”

“[Black youth] don’t need pity or people feeling sorry for us,” said McCaleb, who cofounded N4 Collective, a new media storytelling group using art to combat stigmas, provide healing, and transform society “We need people simply to understand and empathize.”

The panel also stressed the importance of finding a culturally competent therapist as well as being able to afford the sessions. “I finally found one,” said Quincy Powe, age 23, who works with YouthLink. “If I wasn’t going to college right now, I wouldn’t have access to this therapist.”

“Once you find a therapist,” you must ask specific questions, added Newby. “Do you have experience working with Black patients? Do you have experience working with LBGTQ patients?  It makes the pool of therapists to choose from smaller and smaller.”

“Therapy is supposed to be a collective experience,” stated Dorsey, a licensed therapist for nearly a decade who provides multi-culturally competent therapy services, working mostly with college-age adults. “My hope for my business is to grow in a way that serves more people, not just me offering the services, and do it in a way that is in line with my values of serving the community and Black folk, Indigenous folk, and People of Color.”

Last week’s MPR event was a collaboration between the statewide public radio network; American Public Media’s Call to Mind mental health initiative; and Well Beings Youth Mental Health Project, a national project launched by Washington D.C.’s WETA.