Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, Executive Director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research
The Future for NYC’s Black Youth Depends on Better Mental Health Care
Years ago, while I was working on my dissertation, I encountered a young man whose words forever shaped my understanding of how we fail to address the mental health of Black youth in schools and society.
The topic of my research was how social networks influence the usage of mental health services by Black adolescents. During my conversation with the teen he told me how he feels when he’s depressed: “I feel like I want to knock somebody’s head off. I want them to feel the kind of pain that I’m feeling.” You might be thinking to yourself: That doesn’t sound like depression. That sounds like a bad kid.
Yet there’s evidence that Black youth may express their depression symptoms differently than White youth, as described in a 2017 study in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research that we produced at the McSilver Institute. The way they express their pain may tend more toward behavioral and relationship problems, or complaining of physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.
You can interpret this young man’s words as a threat or you can see them as a cry for help—one warranting that he at least receives mental health screening. Yet, too many times in New York City, and around the nation, Black children and teenagers are subject to punishment rather than getting the help that they need.
As Chalkbeat New York reported last year, nearly 45 percent of the city’s suspensions went to Black students, even though they represent about 26 percent of the student population. Meanwhile, White students accounted for nearly 9 percent of the city’s suspensions despite being around 15 percent of the city’s students; and Hispanic students accounted for 39 percent of suspensions, while being just under 41 percent of students.
The article does note that Black students’ suspensions have fallen 8 percentage points over the past 5 years—attributed by Chalkbeat in part to de Blasio administration policies boosting staff training, limiting K-12 suspensions and requiring central signoff for some infractions. Still, that level of punishment is still widely disproportionate.
Lest you think that Black students are suspended simply because they misbehave more, according to 2018 New York City Independent Budget Office report, Black students in New York City receive longer suspensions than other students for the same infractions. When it came to the infractions of bullying, reckless behavior, and altercation, Black students are suspended for roughly twice the number of days as students in other groups.
A 2015 study published in Psychological Science sheds light on what may be at play here: implicit bias. Researchers Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt reported that teachers were quicker to escalate discipline of Black students and view their behavior as problematic, when presented with identical scenarios involving Black and White students. They argue that negative racial stereotypes about Black people influence this harsher response.
Such escalations can lead down a path that derails the lives of too many Black youth. A 2011 report published by the Council of State Governments and Public Policy Research Institute found that when a student is suspended or expelled, the likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year increases significantly, as does the likelihood of dropping out of school. We must find a way to dismantle this “school to prison pipeline.” A first step in New York City would be to end suspensions and expulsions in our Pre-K to Grade 12 schools. Also, we should look to implement restorative justice practices that give students the tools to address and resolve conflict successfully.
Understanding the need for more mental health services to Black children and teenagers is another important step. As it stands, 4,810 Black children below age 17 in New York City received services from the state’s public mental health system in 2017, according to the New York State Office of Mental Health. This figure is up 4 percent since 2015, with the caveat that it is likely to be even higher in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, who knows how many needs are being unmet among our city’s Black youth, particularly after the disruptions to life and economic well-being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning underway over racial injustice in policing and the justice system?
Disruptions caused by the pandemic mean that students in the U.S. who attend grades 3-8 may be beginning the Fall 2020 school year with approximately 70 percent of the learning gains in reading from the year before, relative to a typical school year, according to the Brookings Institution.
Children in communities of color are especially vulnerable to falling behind. As of July 30, 2020, around 50 percent of Black and Latino adults and 40 percent of white adults in households with school-enrolled children had at least one child have their class canceled because of COVID-19, according to U.S. Census Bureau data presented by the Urban Institute.
Meanwhile, an increase of public attention to the killings and injuries of Black people at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes has not only sparked a worldwide protest movement, but has also taken a toll on the mental health of the community. Census Bureau data show that anxiety and depression among African Americans rose 5 percentage points to 41 percent within a week of the widespread circulation of videos of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died in police custody after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
Our young people need support in coping with all of this; and we know that young people who have access to school-based mental health services are 21 times more likely to seek care for mental health reasons than to seek mental health services in the community, according to a 2003 study by researchers at the School Health Program of Montefiore Medical Center. As well, prekindergarten expulsions are reduced by more than 47 percent when classrooms have regular access to a psychiatrist or psychologist, according to a 2005 paper by Dr. Walter S. Gilliam at the Yale University Child Study Center.
Yet, there aren’t nearly enough professionals with mental health training in the city’s public schools. As Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer reported in 2017, the New York City Department of Education employed 1,183 social workers in New York City public schools, or approximately one for every 900 students. We desperately need more social workers in schools, proportionate to student body populations. Further, they must be trained and enabled to deliver services in an educational environment that includes distance learning and hybrid attendance schedules.
As I think back to that young Black teenager who expressed his anguish to me all those years ago, I wonder what ever happened to him. Did he get the help he needed, or did his desire to make others feel his pain lead him down the path to being removed from school and possible involvement in the juvenile justice system?
In New York City, the state of our mental health services to Black youth is at a crisis point: understaffed, undertrained and under-resourced. We have it within our power to save our youth. We must commit ourselves to the task.