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COVID-19 and trauma: Mental health struggles among black teens

The nation’s recent events have brought on a lot of challenges for many people across the country and around the world. While this can be affecting everyone’s mental health, it’s apparent that black teenagers are particularly affected.

Not only can social isolation due to COVID-19 cause feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression but when you add on the fact that Black people are dying at a disproportional rate due to the virus and recent extreme police brutality and violence, these events can take a serious toll on teens—especially teens of color.

The Congressional Black Caucus issued a report in December showing white youth still die by suicide at a higher rate, but the rate of black youth suicide is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24 in Minnesota. We talked with Dr. Sarah Jerstad, associate clinical director of psychological services at Children’s Minnesota St. Paul hospital, about the stress teens of color are feeling right now due to COVID-19 and racial injustice, and about how parents can help.

How is social isolation and COVID-19 affecting kids’ and teens’ mental health?

Kids and teens rely on connecting with others to feel good. When forced physical distancing comes into play, it makes social connecting very difficult. For younger kids, the lack of structured socialization from school, camps or summer activities can lead to boredom, sadness, or increased behavior concerns. Teens really struggle with isolation from friends. “Prioritizing social relationships outside the family is a developmental task for teens, and being disconnected can add to stress,” Dr. Jerstad said. For teens who already struggle with anxiety or depression, the lack of social connectedness can make things worse.

How is COVID-19 affecting mental health for kids of color?

Dr. Jerstad says, “Kids of color have long faced barriers to mental health care in areas of prevention, access to care, quality treatment and mental health outcomes. The onset of COVID-19 has only increased that burden on kids of color.” Access to care has become even more difficult due to previous closings of clinics and hospitals and social distancing rules and guidelines. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put the black community at an increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disproportionate deaths and illnesses in the black community due to COVID-19 can be an additional stressor to a teen who is already experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.

How does police violence and racism impact mental health?

For kids and teens of color, racism is linked to anxiety, depression and trauma. “Kids dealing with racism on a daily basis often feel a fear of being targeted, a lack of safety, or may internalize negative messages they hear about themselves,” said Dr. Jerstad. The violence and brutality by police officers toward those in the black community only adds to the anxiety and fear kids of color feel. Dr. Jerstad mentioned, “Since the death of George Floyd, anxiety and stress among black Americans increased at higher rates than any other ethnic group.” Suicide rates for black teens were already increasing at alarming rates. So much so that black youth under 13 were twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts.

How can parents help? Talk to your children early and often about racism. The most important advice on race and racism is to make sure to talk about it, and to talk early. Dr. Jerstad said, “Research shows that even very young children are aware of racial differences, and children can learn harmful lessons about race when it’s not discussed openly.” The sooner we can get kids to be racially sensitive, the better it’s going to be in the long run when they encounter instances of racial injustice. When your kids are teenagers, have an open discussion on racism and hear their thoughts and opinions.

Where can I find mental health help for my child? Children’s Minnesota is here to help you and you child or teen! We offer many resources including: Outpatient therapy, medication management and immediate help through a phone call or drop-in services. In addition, all services can be accessed remotely via virtual care. Access Children’s Minnesota’s resources here: Behavioral Health Support Hub

Can I help my adult child get mental health help? A great place for young adults to start looking for help is to get a trusted referral through their primary care provider. If time or finances are an issue, Walk-In Counseling Center offers free walk-in therapy services to adults.

Our message to African-American youth

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