As COVID-19 exposes the ways that racial disparities affect health outcomes, African Americans are bearing the brunt of the outbreak in many parts of the nation.
New York City, for instance, estimates black residents are dying at nearly double the rate of white residents. African Americans are also 20 percent more likely to experience mental health problems due to a lack of access to appropriate care. And they are often reluctant to trust a system that has historically been stacked against them.
Caught in this bind are the more than 280,000 black students enrolled in the nation’s largest – and most segregated – public school system. In New York City, 45 percent of all neighborhood elementary schools are 90 percent black and Latino. And, according to a 2014 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 73 percent of charter schools across New York City were labeled as “apartheid schools” where less than 1 percent of the students were white.
Earlier this spring, youth activists from Teens Take Charge and Integrate NYC hosted an event called “Battling NYC School Segregation: 1964 and 2020” to continue the fight for desegregation and equitable education in the New York City public school system. Teens in attendance collectively agreed that there might be a link between school segregation and their mental health.
Eighteen-year-old high school senior Leanne Nunes said she struggled when she attended a school in Florida, where she was one of the few black girls in the program. “It was incredibly challenging,” she said. “My depression and anxiety in those times in my life were incredibly high because I was in a school that either didn’t understand what mental health was or didn’t have the resources to be able to help students.”
Nunes also described herself and other black youth feeling criminalized. She passes through metal detectors every day at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn and is also hand-wanded. She has even been made to take off her shoes, something she called dehumanizing and deplorable.
“Students like myself have become so desensitized to it that when it’s happening in the moment, you kind of just have to laugh or stand there and hold your tongue because there’s really no telling how someone is going to escalate the situation,” said Nunes.
This situation isn’t unique to New York. Miami public schools are ranked as the second most segregated in Florida. As a result of housing and income segregation, low-income black residents in neighborhoods such as Liberty City, Overtown, downtown Miami and Little Haiti attend schools that do not reflect the ethnic makeup of the larger city.
Dr. Jeff Gardere, an associate professor and course director of behavioral medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, has studied mental health in the black community.
“We do see a lot of kids who are being diagnosed,” he said. “With kids, we see depression is manifested in a much different way than what we see with adults. We see more of the classic signs with adults. So, what do we see with kids? We see that they tend to have more academic issues.”
“That’s why we have to be really careful that we miss a diagnosis of depression with our kids. Our kids really don’t know what it is that they’re experiencing. That’s why we have this term ‘acting out’. . . they can’t identify what they’re feeling.”
While the psychological toll of combatting everyday racism is well known, teens revealed that their schools did very little.
“My school did not really have that much support. It only had two counselors and it was about 4,000 students,” said Jahmya Valentine, an Integrate NYC member. “I know that one thing we do fight for is having counselors in schools. We promote making sure you’re mentally stable,” she said. “With Integrate NYC, we do work with other organizations that fund counselors, not cops. We. . . help students prepare themselves better, carry themselves better and feel better about themselves.”
Dr. Jessica Clemons, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist, said that we all need a safe space. “It can be a moment where you are listening to a person with the goal of understanding and placing yourself in their shoes so that you can really try to understand what they’re going through,” she said.
Clemons said that the stigma surrounding mental health services in black communities has its roots in the 1970s when members of the Black Panther party were portrayed as aggressors and mental health professionals diagnosed them with schizophrenia. Often turning to church, family and community, African Americans are less likely to receive mental health treatment and are also misdiagnosed at a higher rate than white patients.
“So naturally, a culture may feel like we can’t go see a psychiatrist if you are going to be locked away and treated against your own will,” said Clemons, who is African American.
Clemons advised that the best way to combat the stigma is to address it head on. “Stigma has nothing really to do with you. It has to do with society and what we have shaped as things that are shameful. My encouragement is always just to speak up, push past it,” she said.