Black Kids Matter: The Danger in Whitewashing Childhood Mental Health in a Pandemic
Stop ignoring Black and Brown children’s pandemic pain by assuming the depressed or anxious pandemic child is White
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately punished BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and non-Black people of color) communities. According to CDC data as of November 30, COVID-19 infects, hospitalizes and kills BIPOCs at rates many times over the rates for White people. Generations of neglect and malevolence provide the backdrop for this calamity: medical neglect resulting in pre-existing conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous to BIPOC bodies; urban neglect resulting in overcrowded housing and thus more disease spread; and economic neglect making BIPOC folks more susceptible to the crippling forces of pandemic-based unemployment.
We now know that BIPOC people fare worse in the pandemic than White people on another measure of well-being: mental health. Recently, a doctor described the mental health crisis among Black people as a “tsunami” triggered by the trauma caused by the virus’s impact on BIPOC bodies, a wave of law enforcement’s physical violence against Black bodies, being more likely to social distance but also disproportionately arrested for violating social distancing rules, and the greater effects of the economic shocks on Black people and communities. Indigenous communities, long disproportionately represented in the masses of American poverty, also find disaster in COVID-19. For a grim example from November, consider that the Navajo Nation had 8,659 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people; if it were a state, it had far more cases per 100,000 people than any other jurisdiction, including New York State. BIPOC communities are suffering physically and mentally with little end in sight. And this particularly rings true for the youngest among us: our children.
National news media unflinchingly detail how children, in general, suffer mentally in this pandemic. Childhood visits to the ER for acute mental health episodes are up 24% and 31% for ages 5–11 and 12–17, respectively. The CDC devotes a page to “Ensuring Children and Young People’s Social, Emotional, and Mental Well-being.” Headlines such as “Pandemic Takes Toll On Children’s Mental Health” (NPR); “Covid stress taking a toll on children’s mental health, CDC finds” (NBC); “The Coronavirus Seems to Spare Most Kids From Illness, but Its Effect on Their Mental Health Is Deepening” (Time); and COVID-19 Creating Mental Health Crisis For Children, Experts Say (CBS Los Angeles) present a picture of a un-raced generic child worried about catching the disease and experiencing the negative effects of social isolation. But in not naming race, we know what race the stories imagine: a White child. Indeed, the Time article actually features pictures of a White woman hugging a White adolescent while a White toddler mills around and a White boy quietly doing nothing while surrounded by bricks.
This refusal to name race in these stories precludes a national discussion about the mental health experiences experienced by all children during this pandemic. White children under 15 are less than half of the child population, such that these presumptively-White profiles lack relevance without an accompanying intersectional analysis.
Non-White children’s mental health issues go beyond not being with peers and general concern about catching the disease. Before the pandemic hit, those paying attention recognized an increasing concern for BIPOC children’s mental health. For example, according to the American Psychological Association, between 1991 and 2017 Black adolescent suicide attempts rose 73% while rates for White children, in the same period, decreased. In 2019, to address this crisis, the Congressional Black Caucus created a taskforce that posited schools as a key space to reach Black children and address their mental health needs. Such a focus matters because “[f]or many young people, school is the primary provider of mental health resources.”
The first time I had suicidal ideations, the first of many times over the next 25 years, I did not know what was happening to me. I did not have a grown-up understanding of depression, how the brain worked and that my condition was one of chemistry and not of personal failing. As is the case with most teenagers, I did not know how to talk to my parents, constrained not only by age but by race; at the time, the prevailing Black view considered depression as something White people indulged in, a personal failing of weakness. As a Black woman in particular, I believed my job required strength, depression was the opposite of strong, and I wanted to be strong like the other Black women in my life. But my teachers, experts on teenagers, noticed my struggle. They noticed that my smile was gone and that I walked with my head down. It was a teacher that urged me to get help when I was 16 and close to a suicide attempt. That teacher gave me the courage to tell my parents, who were, over time, receptive and now understand why I write openly about my diagnosis. Right now, however, in many parts of the country, COVID means no face-to-face school. This key infrastructure for reaching BIPOC children in mental health crisis no longer exists.
We seem to be more comfortable with talking about how schools fail BIPOC children academically. To be sure, distance learning disproportionately and negatively affects BIPOC children’s academics during this pandemic. But BIPOC children also disproportionately experience the conditions of pandemic-related economic shocks on their families and racial trauma in their communities. Every day, BIPOC parents are more likely to lose jobs and run out of unemployment benefits than White parents. Every day, BIPOC mothers, fathers, grandparents are more likely to die than White family members, and leaving children without family support. Every day, the schools BIPOC children attend are struggling with distance learning more than predominately-White schools. These conditions, especially as the pandemic stretches on, can lead to “toxic stress,” where long-term and repeated exposure to trauma negatively impacts a child’s development. And without school, BIPOC children miss an abundant source of social support to counteract that stress — friends, teachers, aides, counselors, staff.
Even in a “back to normal” scenario, school support for BIPOC children would lag behind the emotional crises, as evidenced by the fact that, prior to the pandemic, we as a society struggled with prioritizing BIPOC children’s mental health. But now the response does more than lag. It is nonexistent.
Even as we ponder how to proceed with reopening schools safely, given our near universal understanding that (1) it is imperative that we do so and (2) there are overwhelming barriers to reopening schools in some parts of the country, we need to maintain a firm focus on a fundamental reality. BIPOC children’s pandemic pain reaches far beyond their academic record and test scores. Their pain derives from experiencing racial and economic trauma at levels far beyond those experienced by their White peers. This matters and must be addressed head on and with both intention and courage. If we care about all children’s mental health during this pandemic, we cannot ignore the lives — and pain — of Black and Brown children.