NEARLY EVERYONE HAS experienced a degree of anxiety or depression due to the pandemic. But for young Black people also confronting persistent racism and ever-widening inequities, the current moment has led to an acute crisis in mental health.
The suicide rate among Black youth, which for years trailed that of Asian and white students, has doubled since 2014 is now twice the statewide average, far exceeding all other groups, according to the California Department of Public Health. Twelve of every 100,000 Black 18-24-year-olds died by suicide in 2020. In 2014 the Black suicide rate was about 25 percent lower than that of white students and 15 percent lower than the rate among Asian students.
Black young people are also more at risk of depression, anxiety and stress due to the pandemic, and the recent spotlight on police violence against Black people, according to a December advisory from the U.S. surgeon general. Gun violence, climate change and economic uncertainty also play a role.
“The data is absolutely not surprising. … Black students are in a crisis nationally,” said April Clay, head of counseling and psychological services at California State University, Los Angeles. “Many Black students are experiencing paralyzing anxiety and grief. It’s hard to talk about, and it’s hard for them to find help.”
Black people generally have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, with higher death rates, higher hospitalization rates and less access to health care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 brought forth months of intense media coverage of police brutality and racism, which some Black young people said they found deeply stressful.
“The disparate impact of COVID, plus these additional pressures, have brought Black youth to the brink,” said Lishaun Francis, director of behavioral health at Children Now, a research and advocacy organization that recently released a report detailing the challenges facing young people in California, including mental health struggles among Black youth.
Misdiagnosis also plagues Black youth struggling with mental health, Francis said. A Black student who’s acting out in class too often faces discipline rather than counseling, and Black people with more serious mental health challenges, such as schizophrenia, are more likely to end up in police custody than in psychiatric treatment.
For Destiny Tillear, a junior at Middle College High School in south Los Angeles, the low point came in spring 2020. Her mother, a postal worker, and her stepfather, who works at an oil refinery, were both working full-time in-person, which left Destiny to care for her 2-year-old brother all day while she was in distance learning. One morning she was taking a timed English test when her brother started crying because he needed a diaper change. As the timer ticked away, Destiny tended to the howling toddler and hoped she wouldn’t fail the test.
Her grades did in fact drop during remote learning, which only exacerbated her feelings of despair. She had hoped to attend a top-tier college followed by law school, but that dream seemed to be fading as the pandemic wore on.
“One day (when school returned to in-person instruction) I was stressing about grades and I started crying at school,” Destiny said. “A counselor saw me and brought me to her office. She didn’t judge me at all, she just listened. It definitely worked. I saw her a few times. I’m really grateful my school offered that.”
These days, Destiny finds comfort in reading — sometimes a book a day — and watching her little brother grow up. She’s adjusted her college expectations and knows she can always see a counselor when she needs to.
Joy Menh, a junior at Humboldt State University, said college has been a particular challenge during the pandemic. The daughter of immigrants from Liberia, she felt especially isolated during remote learning, trying to balance her studies with work, financial worries and concern about her family contracting COVID. Then the police murder of George Floyd happened.
“I can discuss it, but it’s very hard for me to see these Black deaths continue happening,” she said. “There’s so much craziness, it’s hard for me to focus.”
She found the Humboldt counseling office helpful, although she thinks that colleges should remove some of the hurdles – such as long delays to see a counselor – for students who need help, especially those experiencing a crisis. She’s also found solace in helping other Black students at her school, where she works at the campus multicultural center.
“I try to surround myself with friends and do things that keep me hopeful, like focusing on school and planning for the future,” Menh said, noting that she hopes to go to law school eventually.
The East Oakland Youth Development Center has been tending to the mental health of Black youth for more than 40 years. But the pandemic has ushered in unprecedented challenges, said Executive Director Regina Jackson. For more than a year, students were unable to connect with friends, and many were stuck at home under crowded, stressful circumstances. To cope, some students withdrew emotionally, while others acted out.
“Let’s face it, this pandemic has impacted us acutely, especially those of us who are impoverished,” Jackson said.
To help, the center has been doing what it has always done: It offers a safe place for students to talk, do art projects, play outside, study and relax. During the worst months of the pandemic, when the center closed, Jackson and her staff sent art supplies and books to children’s homes, organized online parties and encouraged them to talk about the stress they were experiencing.
“We treat our young people like they’re the subject of their own stories. We allow them to express themselves freely,” Jackson said. “It’s about trust, empowerment, curiosity. … That will walk you back from giving up. … When it’s working, we can see the smiles through the masks.”
One of Jackson’s students, Myah White, said that seeking help can sometimes feel difficult because of the stigma associated with mental illness. Myah said that can add another layer to young people’s feelings of isolation.
“Depression and anxiety are things you don’t always talk about in the Black community,” said White, a senior at St. Joseph High School in Alameda. “Our parents are dealing with their own trauma. You just want to be ‘normal.’ With so many hardships, we want to be known for perseverance and strength.”
White found relief by getting involved in equity and diversity issues at her school, which allowed her to talk about the complicated and frustrating emotions she was experiencing and educate her non-Black peers on issues related to racism. The past two years have inspired her to change her career plans, to become a pediatrician serving Black and low-income communities.
Opening up the conversation
Clay, from Cal State Los Angeles, said that one way to reduce stigma is to normalize conversations about mental health at school. Schools should encourage Black students to talk about their feelings in a way that’s empowering, so they feel less alone and more confident describing the conditions that are causing them stress. Schools should also hire more Black counselors, whom Black students are more likely to trust and feel comfortable confiding in.
Like White, Selina Villesanor, a junior at Oakland High School, also altered her plans due to her hardships during the pandemic. In March 2020, a close uncle died of COVID, and Villasanor sank into a depression. She felt like her “world was falling apart” and had nowhere to go for help.
Introspection and counseling helped her pull through.
“The pandemic sparked a spiritual journey for me. It showed me who I am, my strengths and weaknesses,” she said. She now uses that knowledge to help her friends, supporting those who need help. She’s also thrown herself into a new hobby — baking. “I used to sulk. Now I whip up some cookies and cupcakes that I know everyone will love. Cooking helped me to cope.”
Villasanor hopes to study psychology and become a therapist for young people. And someday start her own cooking business.
Leroy Mitchell, a mental health training manager at the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective in Los Angeles, said Black young people grappled with anxiety and depression long before the pandemic and Floyd’s murder. But recent events have shed light on their plight.
In schools, he said, the most important thing teachers and other adults on campus can do is listen. If students don’t open up, adults should try different approaches, such as asking them to play a song that expresses their feelings, or do some artwork, or show TikTok videos that reflect their emotions.
“We have to acknowledge the ways our Black youth are experiencing mental health challenges,” Mitchell said. “But it’s not just listening. We have to put into action the things they’re saying and hold ourselves accountable.”
As bleak as life seems now, Mitchell is confident that this generation will endure and even thrive.
“We are in a crisis. But I have a strong belief in Black youth,” he said. “We come from a legacy of surviving. We come from a legacy of healing. We just need to make room for them to practice their brilliance. … Black youth just simply ‘being’ is the most beautiful thing I can think of.”