As we become more aware of mental health issues due to our COVID-19-required isolation, it’s important to remember a population that can too easily be overlooked: children and adolescents. Because of historic and current racism, an even more susceptible group that needs attention is Black children.
In a recent webinar, Spring Health talked to Dr. Kunmi Sobowale, child & adolescent psychiatry fellow with UCLA Health, and Kwame Owusu-Kesse, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit dedicated to providing individualized attention to underserved children. Both are experts on current mental health practices concerning vulnerable youth—and both shared their timely insights on these concerns in this webinar.
Below are three key highlights of this insightful discussion.
The Black community, especially children, experience unique barriers to mental health
Numerous dynamics contribute to fewer Black children and adolescents receiving mental health treatment. Logistical, psychological, and systemic factors come together to create conditions that make it harder to seek help. A lack of social support and cultural stigma surrounding mental health can prevent children from seeking treatment.
Perhaps more importantly, structural barriers have an even greater effect. Poverty limits access to care and the quality of that care. The location of mental health treatment centers, fluctuating insurance status, and the high cost of care are all impediments that many in Black communities face.
Resilience, a quality often attributed to Black communities, is a complicated presence throughout this all. The tenaciousness of survival can be seen in communal settings like church and other branches of community culture. While this ability to overcome seems a wholly positive presence, the idea of “resiliency” can too often put the responsibility to get better on the individual. A growing acceptance of “it’s okay to not be okay” may help to undo the status quo of keeping quiet on mental health issues for Black children.
Further, when a mental health issue is addressed, Black children and adolescents are too often given the wrong diagnosis, and therefore the wrong treatment. Disruptive and oppositional behaviors are too easily labelled as mental health problems, while the context of a school setting isn’t taken into account. Many factors can lead to behaviors like disobedience, and other forms of acting out, but these are viewed as mental health issues. More often, the child or adolescent is actually reacting to unfair, racist, or otherwise negative treatment.
Informed professional help can be a huge asset
On the professional level, much can be done to improve mental health outcomes for Black children and adolescents. Care should be trauma-informed, with individual plans tailored for each patient. Cultural competence—the ability to understand and reflect the people one serves—can increase the ability to provide quality care. Because of persistent, overt, and more subtle forms of racism, Black children navigate a complex world that needs to be reflected in both their physical and mental health care.
Interventions should not occur only when a situation has reached crisis stage. And, they do not need to be complicated: better nutrition, more physical activity, and a real connection to a community are all areas that can increase mental wellness.
Adults in a child’s life can play a significant role
The professionals aren’t the only adults with a role to play in improving children’s mental health. An understanding of where the child is developmentally will provide much needed guidance to a parent. Taking this developmental perspective allows the parent to take the appropriate action in accordance with the child’s age.
Commonly, children are grouped into three categories: Preschool (0-5), Elementary (6-11), and Adolescent (12 and older). Kids younger than 12 are more likely to think that an incident, whether external or personal, is about them and then may internalize their anxieties.
Recognizing and accepting how young children understand and label their emotions can help a parent deal with their anxieties. While older children can handle abstract concepts, they still need and appreciate frank conversations with their parents about such subjects as race and mental health.
No matter their age, it is important for parents of black children to have conversations about race. While it may be tempting to avoid conversations around difficult events such as those involving police brutality, it can be very beneficial to explore these complex topics with children and adolescents. Approaching such discussions in ways that are appropriate to the child’s development is also important.
Help children consume a wide array of media. You can introduce kids to stories with diverse characters, acknowledge differences between people, and give them knowledge that racism can and does occur. With higher racial literacy, children and adolescents can be better equipped in their own lives.
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