The recent flood of news about the targeting and killing of innocent Black people has been despicable, tragic and heartbreaking — yet for me, as a young Black woman born and raised in this country, unsurprising. I have grown up in a society that has routinely devalued, demonized and subjugated Black bodies. Less than 50 years ago, my own parents were forced to abide by Jim Crow laws, state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. When they had children (me and my two older brothers), they sat us down and instructed us on how to act around white people and, importantly, around the police. They had to teach us that we would be instantly judged as a threat due to the color of our skin — no matter how many degrees we have or achievements we accomplish.
Research has shown that the chronic stress brought on by acts of racism manifests in worse physical and mental health for Black people, from higher rates of chronic diseases to an overall shorter life expectancy. Now, in addition to the traumatic stressors of racism, Black children in this country right now are facing an unprecedented challenge to their mental health.
Many are referring to this period in time as a “double pandemic” for Black people, as Black lives are being threatened not only by the novel coronavirus pandemic, but also by race-based violence and police brutality — a pervasive, persistent, chronic pandemic. This double pandemic threatens the mental health of Black families, and importantly, Black children who are attempting to learn, play, grow and develop normally during this abnormal time. As a Black female public health professional and resident physician in pediatrics, I fear for the long-term impact of this time both personally and professionally.
Double Pandemic: COVID-19 and Race-Based Violence
COVID-19 has given us an understanding of how inequality in our country manifests in worse health for Black people. We’ve seen that Black people are more likely to hold jobs in settings where they are likely to be exposed to the virus, while also being less likely to have access to quality medical care. We have also seen that Black people have been infected and died from COVID-19 at higher rates than white people in this country: though only representing about 13% of the population, Black Americans represent a full 23% of COVID-19 related deaths, according to the CDC.
In this moment, the vast majority of Black families are facing many layers of trauma, defined as deeply distressing or disturbing experiences that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. In addition to the trauma of facing a global pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people, we are also facing the traumas of job loss, economic instability, and police and race-based violence. Furthermore, Black people have and will continue to face historical trauma: cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences including enslavement, lynching and murders of our Black ancestors. The manifestation of this historical trauma arises in feelings of unresolved grief, harboring of unexplained anger and the internalization of negative stereotypes about the worth of Black people, leading to self-degradation and self-hate.
Research on “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” episodes of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences that occur under the age of 18, has shown that those who have experienced significant trauma in early childhood are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors, suffer chronic health conditions and die earlier than those who have not. Unpredictable or threatening life circumstances activate the body’s stress response repeatedly, which makes it more difficult to engage in the executive functioning skills needed to plan, focus and resist impulsive behaviors: skills that are essential for educational achievement, economic success and overall well-being. The combination of a global pandemic, economic instability, racism and over-policing of Black people has created immense instability in the lives of Black children.
What’s worse, the pandemic has complicated our ability to heal from trauma during these challenging times. Physical distancing mandates have led to an interruption in the most important factor for building resilience: social support, which is often delivered through community gatherings or religious events. School closures and the cancelation of group activities, sports, and large celebrations like birthday parties and graduations are destabilizing children’s day-to-day lives. The interruption of social support systems and the disturbance in routines serve as imposing barriers to mental wellness for Black children and families, at a time when they need it most.
What’s Next for Black Children?
I fear that we as a society are not poised to support our Black children’s mental health. The needs are great and the services are few. In my own clinical experience, I have seen long wait times to see a mental health professional, even up to six to eight weeks for a first appointment with a therapist. This is complicated by a national shortage of child psychiatrists and psychologists, and a high prevalence of mental health issues even during normal check-ups. Black children need support from providers who are culturally competent, trained in the specific pressures and traumas that Black people face.
So what can be done to address this issue? First of all, it is important to recognize that an individual’s health and behaviors are influenced by a myriad of factors beyond that individual, including the individual’s social networks, their support systems and the resources in their community. For that reason, it is important to remember that trying to improve Black children’s mental health must go beyond providing services for these children, but also bolstering the mental and physical well-being of the adults in their lives, while ultimately taking action to address the racism and socioeconomic disparities that lead to worse health for Black people.
At a school level, there must be a greater investment in services to support the mental health of Black children than in services to police them. Most children’s interactions with mental health care services come through their school; however many young Black students are in schools that have more policing than mental health services. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 1.7 million students are in schools that have cops on campus, but no school counselors. Six million are in schools with cops but no school psychologists. Schools must recognize and address the root of behavioral issues like anger, emotional outbursts, sadness, or violence, rather than aggressively punishing the behavior.
Importantly, non-Black parents must take action to break the generational chains of racism through educating their children about love and inclusion. Some ways to do this include modeling inclusive behavior, teaching children about empathy, discussing race and racism openly, exposing children to diverse experiences and people, and emphasizing commonalities amongst all people such as the desire to love and be loved.
This time in our history has awoken non-Black people to the fact that racism is far from over — something that Black people have been acutely aware of each and every day. I am reminded that racism is still alive when security guards, assuming I intend to steal something, follow me closely in stores, or when patients are confused that I could possibly be a medical professional because of the color of my skin. My Black friends and family members have personally experienced the chronic, daily stressors of racism, from being treated aggressively by police, to being discriminated against in the work environment, to being called racist slurs. The cumulative mental toll of these insidious implicit biases, compounded by a global pandemic in which our community members are dying disproportionately, is heavy.
Yet, even amidst all of the weight that my community must carry, I love being Black. I love the way my brown skin sparkles in the sun. I love the delicious variety of traditional foods that we have created from all over the African diaspora. I love the music, the dances, the poetry, the art that we have constructed from our collective pain and our trauma. I am hopeful that Black and non-Black people can come together to create a world in which our Black babies can celebrate the skin they are in and the cultural differences that make them unique. Until that day comes, we must work to support Black children’s mental health. With increased awareness and ultimately action taken from individuals, corporations and our political leaders, we can all ensure that Black children growing up through the double pandemic of COVID-19 and racial violence receive the love and mental health support that we all so desperately need.
Dr. Tiana Woolridge is a Mental Health Expert for YourMomCares, a nonprofit organization founded by celebrity and influencer Moms for kids’ mental health.