As we enter a new era of focusing on mental health, we must prioritize Black young adults. The recent losses of Ian Alexander, Jr., and Cheslie Kryst are very visible tragedies of an underlying crisis we cannot ignore. The suicide rate among 13- to 30-year-olds is growing fastest in the Black community, rising over 50 percent between 2010 and 2019.
A study in The Journal for Community Health found that the rate of death by suicide among Black girls ages 13 to 19 rose 182 percent between 2001 and 2017. And that was before the pandemic, which — research shows — has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
These numbers demand action. We need to actively work to build Black students’ resilience and healing so that thriving — not just surviving — is the goal. Schools are powerful places to work toward that reality.
We need to actively work to build Black students’ resilience and healing so that thriving — not just surviving — is the goal. Schools are powerful places to work toward that reality.
Young people spend the bulk of their time in school, so, from both a practical and public health perspective, intervening in schools will enable us to impact the greatest number of students. When done well, in-school mental health support can catch 80 percent of students of any background who are struggling and connect them to appropriate supports.
Schools have a particularly critical opportunity to help Black youth, who — for several reasons — are much less likely to receive mental health services than their white peers and more likely to receive inadequate care. Schools can narrow that access gap by offering all students access to affirming environments and well-trained professionals, by partnering with proven community care and by connecting students to telehealth services.
In schools we can also leverage a potent weapon in the fight for youth mental health — peers who have been trained to identify and reach out to students who are struggling. Many teens and young adults turn first to their friends for support, but young people are often unsure how to help. By teaching students to look out for one another — and what to look out for — we can not only build a support network, but also create an environment where needing and asking for help is accepted and encouraged.
A significant risk factor for suicide is isolation, which is an experience writ large for Black youth, who rarely receive institutional support for the historic — and ongoing — marginalization and race-based aggression they face. That isolation and trauma are often compounded by how Black students who need mental health support are treated.
By teaching students to look out for one another — and what to look out for — we can not only build a support network, but also create an environment where needing and asking for help is accepted and encouraged.
Research shows that schools respond differently to behaviors that could be signs of depression and anxiety in Black and white students. Black students are more likely to be disciplined, sometimes through the juvenile justice system, which is associated with an increased risk for suicide.
Rather than further isolating Black students, we need to provide our youth with a powerful mental health protective factor — a sense of belonging — and one of the greatest buffers to trauma — connection to a supportive adult. Schools provide an unmatched opportunity to build an inclusive, equitable network of support that can protect the mental health of Black and — by extension and intention — allstudents.
What would that look like?
- Creating positive school climates in which Black students’ identities are celebrated beyond Black History Month and Juneteenth.
- Hiring school mental health staff who share the backgrounds of the students they are serving.
- Training all staff in ways to communicate with their students that take into account different students’ experiences, identities and circumstances to increase students’ sense of belonging and engagement.
- Evaluating data on suspensions and expulsions to see if Black students are disproportionately receiving disciplinary action instead of mental health support.
- Using a community approach to conflict and behavior challenges. For instance, instead of suspending students for fighting, schools can bring them together for a mediated conversation after a conflict. This not only holds students accountable for their behavior, but also helps students build connections, develop conflict-management skills and learn to address the roots of conflicts.
- Educating teachers, students and staff on how to identify and reach out to students who are struggling.
- Launching student-designed awareness campaigns that include the input of Black students to make mental health an everyday conversation and increase student understanding that school is a place where they can ask for — and find — support. Helping students develop the skill to ask for help when they need it is a powerful way to prevent suicide and will benefit students’ physical and emotional well-being their entire lives.
There is another reason schools can be a profound place to care for Black youth. Historically, Black communities have relied on collective methods of healing to overcome adversity; fostering a community approach to supporting students — such as getting support from their peers — is an effective, less stigmatizing and more accessible way to improve mental health. Building a community of support within schools respects the traditions and cultures of Black students while benefiting all students.
Suicide is a worst-case scenario. There are many steps along the way where we can intervene to prevent it. We can create a culture of care for Black youth and all young people. And we have never needed it more.
Wenimo Okoya is director of the JED High School Implementation program of The Jed Foundation.
This story about meeting the mental health needs of Black youth was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.