Magazine Feature

Black Minds Matter

Interrupting school practices that disregard the mental health of Black youth.
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Illustration by Alleanna Harris

McKenzie Adams and Maddie Whitsett should still be here with us today. But after being tormented at their respective schools last year, the two girls, both 9 years old, died by suicide. According to the girls’ families, McKenzie was the victim of racist bullying, and Maddie was taunted because she had ADHD.

These two children represent the human faces behind a disturbing study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2018: Although the overall suicide rate for Black youth is about 42 percent lower than for white youth, that number represents all young people under 17. While Black teens between the ages of 13 and 17 are 50 percent less likely to die by suicide than white teens, the suicide rate for Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 is about twice as high as that of their white peers.

The study, which analyzed data from 2001 through 2015, does not describe reasons for the disparity, but it points to the need for culturally informed interventions. In a 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, which analyzed data from 1993 through 2012, researchers came to a troubling conclusion: Because there was no significant change in the overall suicide rate among youth, the fact that the suicide rate had decreased among white children but increased among Black children had been obscured.

While youth advocates note that these statistics are disturbing, they welcome the much-needed and long-overdue conversation about the well-being of Black children. This awareness of suicidality among Black youth is why the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) established an emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health in April 2019. It aims to determine the reasons for the significant increase in suicide, recommend ways to improve Black children’s access to mental health care and create solutions to better protect and support them.

Black people, including youth, are less likely to receive adequate care for mental health issues for a number of reasons: disparities in access to care, stigma about mental illness and lack of culturally competent mental health practitioners. According to a study published in the International Journal of Health Services, Black children are about half as likely as white children to get mental health treatment. As the CBC task force, mental health experts and policy makers mull over ideas to address this gap, it’s also crucial that schools devote significant attention and space to mental health literacy and provide mental health services in the form of counselors and psychologists.

Schools Must Fill the Gap

Because the racial disparities in mental health access and treatment affect children, schools necessarily play a major role in helping to mitigate those disparities. This inequity “perfectly underscores schools as the de facto providers of mental health services to students,” says Charles Barrett, a school psychologist and multicultural committee chair for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). “Because systemic issues related to race and poverty disproportionately affect Black children and families, schools, due to having access to large numbers of children, are a practical way to meet a significant need.”

Advocates agree that school administrators and educators must be part of this work. School faculty and staff are likely to notice signs and symptoms that something is amiss and refer students to the help they need. But schools often fail in this effort when it comes to Black students—and sometimes cause even more harm.

When Black students exhibit negative behaviors or become withdrawn, educators often label them as problems and subject them to reactionary, zero-tolerance policies and other practices that disproportionately affect Black students but don’t address the root causes of such behavior.

This harm manifests in a number of ways: adopting curriculum that isn’t culturally responsive, lowering academic expectations, tracking Black students into remedial or special education classes and seeing Black youth as older and less innocent than their white peers—a bias known as adultification.

“Kids who don’t feel safe, engaged or supported cannot show up in schools and demonstrate what they know and have learned,” says David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black LGBTQ and same-gender-loving communities. “In particular, those who have been terrorized by [educators’] indifference and our ignorance—and the hate that is often birthed from that—suffer and are suffocated.”

We see this suffering play out regularly in news reports of egregious assaults on Black children’s dignity at school: A Black student is humiliated when made to clean feces off a bathroom wall; a teacher rips the braids from a Black girl’s head; groups of Black kids are forced to act as enslaved people while their white classmates pretend to trade them as property; Black students are turned away from school because they have dreadlocks or some other “unacceptable” hairstyle.

Illustration of a student of color looking pensive under a shade of blue while other students in shades of yellow smile and look to the right.

These stressors are serious. And sometimes they rob children of their lives, especially if they’re compounded by underlying mental health issues.

“I’m acknowledging that the world often doesn’t allow Black people to simply be,” Johns says. “But it’s incredibly important for parents, family members and educators to protect the ability for our babies just to be babies—to laugh, to make mistakes, to color outside of the lines, to create things with blocks that don’t make sense to those of us who have forgotten how to dream. Too often we snatch them from Black kids in ways that are unfair and undeserved.”

Johns leads a policy committee for a working group commissioned by the CBC’s task force. He leverages his experience as a former kindergarten and third-grade teacher into policy work and activism. He spent a decade crafting federal policy, from serving as a congressional fellow to directing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans under President Barack Obama. His work has focused on education and health care issues as they relate to children and families.

In his postgraduate work at Teachers College, Columbia University, Johns describes how schools themselves are sources of trauma for kids who are not white, cisgender or heterosexual.

Too often, he says, academic researchers and policymakers approach conversations about issues Black youth face with a deficit mindset—treating Black students, their families and communities as perpetually problem-ridden despite the fact that these conditions were forced on them. “We need to invert that. Black feminists a long time ago talked about the reality that there are signs, symbols and systems that work to make white privilege real and work to preserve it and often make it invisible,” Johns emphasizes.

Johns notes that there is urgency in the establishment of the CBC task force, which is expected to produce a report with recommendations by the end of the year.

“The emergency in this context also signals that it’s not designed to be permanent,” he explains. “This isn’t going to be a standing caucus. We are working through the first quarter of next year to accomplish as much as we can and to plant seeds that will continue to bloom.”

“We’re Still Healing”

Gabriel Bryant, coordinator for Engaging Males of Color, a Philadelphia youth initiative, sees firsthand how under- or undiagnosed mental health issues can add to the challenges Black students might have at school.

“Oftentimes, there are added stressors for young people when they don’t feel that they have an outlet with which to cope, with which to manage the grief, the loss, the anger, the sadness,” Bryant says. “And what happens is that it’s compounded when that young person recognizes that they also have just a whole host of social determinants to navigate. That can be overwhelming.”

He argues that these added stressors—the causes of that grief, loss, anger and sadness—must be addressed before there can be real change. Such stressors include the effects of poverty, environmental issues, living in a food desert and having disabilities.

The growing awareness of mental health concerns for Black children doesn’t mean something new is happening. Educators and mental health advocates note that perhaps the increase in Black youth suicidality may be coming to light now because previously there wasn’t a collection of such data specific to Black children.

“And in particular,” David Johns points out, “we have a lot of work to do to overcome the stigma that’s still associated with mental health, which is still seen in too many communities as a ‘white people thing.’”

Charles Barrett encourages school psychologists and school counselors to help Black families understand how depression and anxiety look in children, which may be different from adults.

“Relatedly, school-based mental health professionals need to assist Black families with accessing culturally responsive community-based resources—for example, counseling and therapy,” Barrett says. “And although it’s improving, school-based mental health professionals can also work with Black families to reduce the stigma that is associated with mental health in the Black community.”

Trust has to be built, though.

“Whenever possible—and it’s not always feasible—I think identifying other Black providers for families could be very helpful,” Barrett says. “I think sometimes I’ve shared the same message that they’ve heard from others, and it’s received better from someone who looks like you.”

Another aspect of that lack of trust has to do with Black communities’ historical and ongoing struggles for equal rights. On top of that, some communities must also tackle issues that are exacerbated by these inequities, such as violence, poverty and substance abuse. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, an associate professor of English education with Teachers College, Columbia University, says Black people are often left out of critical conversations about these problems that plague families of any race.

“As Black people, we’re still healing,” she says. “We’ve been ignored for so long. The issues that have been in other communities—let’s say issues of abuse or incest or whatever—always seems to get public media attention when it happens to white families. Some of these same ills have always been happening in our community and probably more so because of the vestiges of enslavement and captivity in this country.”

The world often doesn’t allow Black people to simply be. But it’s incredibly important for parents, family members and educators to protect the ability for our babies just to be babies.

Invisible at Intersections

Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old Alabama student who “loved everybody,” his mother, Camika Shelby, said, was consistently targeted because of his sexual identity. His mother has said the teen struggled with depression that, by April of this year, had become unbearable. His death by suicide is a painful reminder that Black LGBTQ youth are extremely vulnerable. Camika Shelby claims that school officials failed Nigel because they allegedly had knowledge that he planned to take his own life.

Nigel was also harmed by society’s inability to respond to the ways systems of oppression intersect. Black LGBTQ students are being bullied for just existing. They experience a multiplying effect of intersectional identities, which creates physical, mental and emotional harm from many different angles.

For example, they are more likely to also experience economic insecurity, violence, harassment and religious intolerance in addition to racial discrimination. LGBTQ youth are more than three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight classmates. Being Black creates a greater risk. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 Black and African American LGBTQ Youth Report, over two-thirds of Black LGBTQ respondents ages 13 to 17 had been verbally insulted, and just under one-third had been threatened with physical violence.

Their stories resonate with Johns. He advocates for and uplifts Black LGBTQ youth who are rejected or disregarded by those around them. He noticed such disregard while serving on a U.S. Senate committee.

“Whenever a group came to lobby us and they were concerned about issues affecting Black people or communities, they talked as if students in this context were all heterosexual,” he says. “There were literally no queer possibilities at all. And then, conversely, whenever groups like GLSEN or HRC or the Trevor Project lobbied us, they would talk as if all LGBTQ [people] were white.”

Johns says support for Black LGBTQ youth goes beyond ensuring their physical safety. It also means teachers are intentional about creating environments that are inclusive of LGBTQ history and narratives and mindful of exclusive or binary constructs that ignore Black LGBTQ students’ intersectional identities.

Using Critical Humility and Interrupting to Better Serve Black Students

In her work at Teachers College, Columbia University, Sealey-Ruiz teaches critical humility—a concept coined by a group called the European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness. They want white people to think about their whiteness and to use their privilege to speak up and take action against inequity. From Sealey-Ruiz’s perspective, this approach requires that teachers—particularly white teachers in schools with predominately Black students—interrupt the status quo of white supremacy, thus countering systems that contribute to Black students’ diminishment at school.

“But as you’re speaking up and taking action, you have to be humble enough to make sure you’re not trying to speak for those who are marginalized,” Sealey-Ruiz says. “It’s a perfect antidote to the white savior complex.”

A first step is to be mindful of the recent Black youth suicide data to avoid placing labels on students who may be suffering silently. This means refraining from profiling or labeling Black children as problematic and re-evaluating discipline policies that disproportionately affect them.

“That information needs to be in schools where there is a predominance of Black children,” Sealey-Ruiz says. “Teachers need to be trained on what to look for so that they can interrupt … to be equipped with knowledge and to be able to interrupt their own thinking about that child, and then have enough information to say, ‘Well, this might be a signal that something else is going on.’”

Interrupting also means being grounded in cultural responsiveness and rethinking pedagogy and the aims of teaching. For Sealey-Ruiz, that means interrupters should also raise the sociopolitical consciousness of their students.

“Ultimately, it’s about liberation of the human spirit, liberating yourself from the false lies of [white] superiority, and therefore creating liberating spaces for Black and brown children, for them to be their best selves in school.”

Teachers of color aren’t exempt from this deep work.

“If you’re a person of color and you hold certain beliefs about your own people because you’ve been colonized to do so, unless you unpack that and release that,” Sealey-Ruiz says, “that doesn’t just disappear because you decided to serve children who look like you.”

She notes that knowledge about Black youth suicidality will help teachers and communities arm themselves with tools to better support Black students. But they have to be honest with themselves first.

“Even if teachers don’t realize it, subconsciously, they’re almost given permission to treat children a certain way,” Sealey-Ruiz emphasizes. “So, I think about the children who have immigrant experiences or the Black children—the way that we’re portrayed in media and what’s stereotypically passed down around that. Teachers subconsciously hold those stories.”

She insists that teacher educator programs and programs that produce principals must have serious conversations about this work.

She also encourages her students, who are pre-service teachers, to consider how their own identities and conditioning interact with those of the children they teach.

“I’m very open and honest with my students about what it means to be a teacher,” she says. “I do that through reading, through conversations, but my main method is what I call the Archaeology of the Self. They have to do this deep digging about where issues of race and racism, homophobia, transphobia—all of these intersectional identities that children bring—they have to really dig deep about how it lives within them and how they understand it will impact their practice.”

School as a Safe Haven

Barrett says that while there is more knowledge about mental health issues concerning Black youth, there isn’t enough action.

For example, we continue to see discipline practices that respond to subjective notions of disruptive behavior, defiance and disrespect have not changed, despite evidence that restorative justice practices can greatly reduce suspension and expulsion rates—approaches that disproportionately affect Black students and potentially harm the trajectory of their lives.

After the mandatory implicit bias, cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity trainings for educators, there must be a policy shift, and that has to happen at the school board level.

“If those [policies] aren’t changed,” Barrett says, “I think we’re still spinning our wheels talking about issues but having the same outcome, because our practices follow the policies that they are designed to support. I think school psychologists and others that can speak to the need for more culturally relevant policy could be an important next step in this process.”

Ultimately, it’s imperative that teachers reassess why they do this work and who they are serving.

“Too often, I’ve met teachers who feel like it is the obligation of the student to change themselves, to bend and shift in order to show up in spaces that aren’t designed for them,” Johns says. “Unless teachers understand that it is our responsibility to do the work to make sure our classrooms and school communities are safe and inviting and supportive of and reflective of all of the parts of all of our students. … If we can’t do that, then we’re not doing enough.

“If we’re unwilling to do that, then we need to consider another profession.”

Dillard is a senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.

When teaching Black students, consider these reminders:

Know your own story. Teacher educator Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz uses the phrase “Archaeology of the Self” to describe how teachers should dig deep, peel back layers of themselves and think about how issues of race, class, religion and sexual identity live within. Recognize that what is beneath these layers will affect relationships with your students. And if these issues go unexamined, they may even cause harm. Teaching requires more than academic study. Re-evaluate why you teach and be willing to think beyond pedagogy to holistically serve Black students. Practice critical humility and avoid speaking for Black students and their communities.

Decolonize your curriculum. Make historical literacy a priority. Representation matters, but historically, Eurocentric narratives and perspectives have been elevated in curricula. Instead, learn and teach full histories that accurately reflect a real, diverse world.

Be mindful. Recognize that some communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized, need to heal. This certainly includes many of your Black students’ communities. Allow Black children to just be, and reject anti-Black attitudes.

Be a first responder. School and district leaders play an important role here: You can ensure that your staff become mental health literate and get trained in “mental health first aid.” This knowledge is critical so they know what resources to refer to when the need arises. Learn how one school district accomplished this in our Spring 2019 feature “Demystifying the Mind.”

See all of your students. Use an intersectional approach and recognize that students may have identities that don’t conform to the dominant culture at your school. For example, be aware of the vulnerability and risk of harm that Black LGBTQ youth face inside and outside the classroom.