Republished from the National Black Women’s Justice Institute blog.
As we head into another school year with uncertainty regarding COVID-19, struggles with mental health remain a major challenge for youth, especially for youth of color. Before 2020, there was already an epidemic of unmet mental health needs among Black girls and a strong need for school-based mental health services for youth. This year, those needs have only grown stronger. But many schools are not ready for this.
This is a critical issue: school is where youth are most likely to try to access mental health care compared to other community settings, and school-based services can reduce barriers to care (such as transportation and health insurance) that disproportionately affect youth of color. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has made mental health support a key pillar of the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Return to School Roadmap, which recommends that schools invest in counselors and mental health professionals. Although many educators and policymakers agree with the DOE’s advice, they currently lack capacity and resources to increase students’ access to mental health support in school.
Looking to youth themselves for guidance is where schools and policymakers should start: A new report from Mental Health America (MHA) calls for 1) promoting youth leadership at the local, state, and national levels to improve youth mental health in schools and 2) mobilizing more youth across the country to advocate for change.
To this end, we worked with the youth leaders involved in the Hope, Healing, and Health Collective (H3), in collaboration with The Children’s Partnership, to hold a conversation with mental health professionals of color earlier this month. Together, they discussed going back to school, increasing access to mental health services, and elevating the voices and concerns of youth of color. H3 is a youth-led collaborative of 15 youth leaders and organizations from across the country that is leading the way in developing a policy agenda to expand the availability and accessibility of culturally-affirming and gender-responsive mental health and well-being services to Black girls and other youth of color who are experiencing historic, crisis-level rates of mental health needs and suicide risk.
Recommendations from Youth
H3 youth shared that their top concerns as they prepared to return to school were catching up or keeping up with their schoolwork and managing family issues. In addition, several other key action items emerged during that discussion:
Mental health providers must understand the larger social context of young people’s lived experiences and tailor services to meet youth where they are.
We must create spaces for youth of color to discuss the historical traumas their communities have endured that continue to impact their health and wellness today.
We must remove barriers that make it difficult and prevent youth of color from accessing mental health services, including finding a provider, cost, and fear and mistrust due to past negative experiences.
Youth want mental health services that allow them to express themselves and their identities (e.g., music, dance, poetry, and art), and they prefer to access emotional support from clubs and other youth programs (virtual or in-person) versus traditional mental health services.
Recommendations for Schools
As schools reopen this fall, there are a few practical ways that they can begin to prioritize mental health and emotional support for Black girls and other students of color:
Implement safe spaces within the building for students to share their feelings. At the start of class, during lunch, and before and after school are opportune times for teachers and other school staff to check-in with students, preferably in group settings so youth do not feel isolated and can connect with other classmates that might be facing similar challenges.
Respond to the shortage of school-based mental health professionals by using district funds to target and recruit more mental health professionals, social workers, and counselors of color, especially Black mental health providers who are severely underrepresented. (With providers of color severely underrepresented within the mental health field, mental health approaches lack cultural relevance for many youth of color.)
Destigmatize mental health by providing basic training to all teachers, administrators, and school staff. Every adult working with our youth in schools should have an understanding of mental health and be comfortable talking about it.
Develop partnerships with community-based nonprofits serving Black girls and gender-expansive youth to provide after-school programs. Black Girls Smile, Justice for Black Girls, and Detroit Heals Detroit are examples of organizations in the H3 Collective that are gender-responsive, culturally-affirming, rooted in healing, and centering the mental health and wellbeing of Black youth.
Mental health is a key focus area and advocacy priority for NBWJI because unresolved mental health issues, trauma, and abuse are correlated with Black girls’ pathways into the criminal legal system: Approximately 65% of girls in the juvenile legal system have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the rates of major depression among justice-involved girls are more than twice those of boys. Black girls need support to heal. Holistic mental health services embedded within school systems can serve as a preventative step, helping Black girls address experiences of trauma and abuse before the symptoms are criminalized and result in punitive outcomes.
We need mental health services that recognize the specific experiences of Black girls and provide approaches that are both culturally-affirming and gender-responsive. We hope that this school year will be different for Black girls and youth of color. Given the unprecedented circumstances, we call on our school systems to step up and take on this challenge.
Thank you to Monica Martin, senior administrator for child/adolescent school & community-based services with the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Health & Human Services; Dr. Henrika McCoy, associate professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois Chicago; and Dr. Leticia Villarreal Sosa, professor at Dominican University’s School of Social Work for sharing your insight and expertise with the H3 Collective and engaging in conversation with the youth leaders.