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Put Solutions First to Address Racial Disparities in Youth Mental Health

By Constance “Connie” Garner

Today’s youth are navigating a mental health crisis, worsened by a decade filled with unprecedented challenges, including the global pandemic, the shift to remote schooling and the pressures of social media. Black youth are disproportionately affected by these challenges as they face racism and discrimination, too — two significant factors of social determinants of health that contribute to chronic stress and, consequently, poorer health outcomes in BIPOC communities.

Suicide rates among Black youth are higher than compared to their white peers, highlighting the urgency of this crisis. A study from 2018 to 2021 shows a stark 19 percent rise in suicide rates among 10-24-year-olds in this demographic. Research focusing on children aged 5-12 reveals that Black youth are approximately twice as likely to die by suicide than peers of other races.

To address the mental health epidemic, especially the racial disparities in it, decisive action is needed. A promising step is the 1-million-dollar grant awarded to the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System through Biden’s Project Prevent program to address the impact of community violence on students’ mental health, providing vital support to a district with a significant Black student population.

Unfortunately, Georgia faces a broader, systemic issue: a significant portion of its residents live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. Over 6 million Georgians, in fact, and this lack of access blocks children and teens from receiving the life-saving care they need. While community leaders spearhead school and community-based programs to provide mental health support for Black youth, these efforts alone are not enough — we need action on the federal level to improve access to care.

Our focus should be on expanding initiatives like President Biden’s Project Prevent and investing in school counselors, who play a crucial role in supporting students’ mental well-being. Training school staff, particularly in racial sensitivity and early identification of mental health issues, is a fundamental step towards prioritizing the mental health of our students.

Community-based programs address mental health challenges on an individual level and offer services that are culturally sensitive and more accessible to local populations, including underserved and marginalized communities. They are instrumental in raising mental health awareness, reducing stigma and connecting individuals with resources. As such, investing in them will continue to make a big local impact across the state.

Another major concern is the shortage of medical professionals, particularly in mental health, which leaves many without access to critical care. Expanding telepsychiatry will help bridge the mental health care gap as the rise of telehealth has made mental health services more accessible, especially for those in areas without mental health professionals. The use of this technology has the added benefit of reducing stigma — a common barrier to seeking help among Black youth. Additionally, primary physicians can serve as an initial point of contact for mental health treatment, and training these professionals to identify and address mental health issues early can prevent the worsening of mental health crises.

As we continue seeking ways to address the disparities in mental health care, we must also take time to thoroughly review any federal proposals. It’s critically important that Congress and administration officials coordinate directly with experts in the field to ensure changes to health care policy will have their intended effect. We cannot afford, for instance, to institute a rule aimed at increasing the number of mental health care professionals, which would actually lower care standards across the board — making it more difficult to find adequate care.

Constance “Connie” Garner urges, “I ask us to reflect on the impact that legislative changes have on vulnerable groups, especially Black youth. Tackling the children’s mental health crisis requires a concerted effort from caregivers, school counselors, medical professionals and federal policymakers, including the Biden administration, working in tandem to safeguard the well-being of all students.”

Constance “Connie” Garner
Constance “Connie” Garner spent 17 years as Policy Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) under former Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Tom Harken (D-IA) played a pivotal role in drafting The Mental Health Parity Act of 2008. he is also certified as a Pediatric and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner who worked for maternal-child health inpatient hospitals in the Philadelphia area.

Last updated on March 12, 2024

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