Mental Health Needs Of Black Children Often Fly Under The Radar

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/28/17
A study found that black children made nearly 50% fewer visits to a mental health professional than their white counterparts, despite similar rates of struggle.
sad school-aged child sitting on step with head in his hands.

When children don’t get the mental health care they need, it affects them for life. And, in the case of children in high needs-low resource schools, this is especially true. In the absence of the ability to provide mental health care, the solutions schools tend to fall back on are punitive. When students “act out” in ways that disrupt the classroom, and there is no counselor to sit them down and discover the underlying trauma that caused the behavior, the result is often that the child is given a time out, detention, or suspension.

A 2016 study found that black and Latino children made 47-58% fewer visits to a mental health professional than their white counterparts, despite similar rates of mental health struggles. This sets black children up for what Dr. Marva Robinson, a licensed clinical psychologist in St. Louis, calls a “permanent domino effect.”

“They usually end up in punitive systems—suspensions, detentions, kicked out of school, expelled or placed in alternative schools,” Robinson told St. Louis Public Radio. “And so, that leads to a very negative trajectory from that point forward. So, higher dropout rates, lower paying jobs, more likely to end up in the criminal system and it just goes on from there.”

This is backed up by data that shows black children are more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for exhibiting the same behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black students were suspended and expelled at rates three times higher than their peers—on average, just 5% of white students receive suspensions while 16% of black students do.

A recent study from Georgetown Law found that black girls were five times more likely to be suspended than white girls. “What we found is that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center, said in a press release.

“So the trickle down effect starts from that beginning,” Robinson continued. “Not seeing the childhood or the child-like features in them. So dropping a pencil is seen as doing it on purpose and being malicious, or a child having tantrums is not being seen as maybe depressed, but just acting out for no reason or attention-seeking. And so, it's that initial stage where they're told that their symptoms aren't clinical symptoms, but bad behaviors."

Advocates and professionals say that catching mental health struggles early and getting kids the support they need is crucial for their lifelong trajectory. "Punishing people for mental illness or addiction is both inhumane and ineffective,” Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, professor at the City University of New York at Hunter College, lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and author of the 2016 study, said in a press release.

“The lack of care for minority youth is the real crime."

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.