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Dealing with the Mental Health of the U.S.

Published by, May 25, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As the month ends, we can conclude that this country doesn’t take the issue seriously. It has never been healthy, based upon the violent nature of its founding – the theft and pillage of Indigenous land and culture, the enslavement of African peoples, etc. Economic exploitation and political dis-empowerment, both features of racial capitalism, have been relentless and self-serving. Right now, our Black and Brown children are truly suffering and are in desperate need of mental health attention.

The pandemic threw our kids into a hole of uncertainty while isolating them from the critical peer relationships they need. Socializing with friends, engaging in physical activities, having a good sleep regiment – these were all compromised during COVID-19. As adults stumbled and fumbled to understand the virus and put safety protocols in place, our children were being profoundly affected.

Society still operates under the harmful assumption that children are resilient and will be okay. What we know from the research is that they are temporarily resilient; they are able to compartmentalize trauma for the moment. However, if they are not provided with the support needed over time, we will witness them grow into broken adults and all that comes with it.

Across the country, parents, educators, school counselors and youth advocates have been sounding the warning bells about the state of our children’s mental and physical well-being. Those who are closest to the problem are begging for help that seems to be elusive. Our young ones are struggling with anxiety, depression and isolation on top of their obesity, juvenile diabetes and asthma. They are victims of sexual assault, physical abuse and other forms of violence.

Our children are not growing up in a vacuum. They are being exposed to extreme political division, racial polarization, increasing violence on all levels and economic uncertainty. The brilliance of their futures has been overshadowed by conditions created by the very adults charged with their development, safety and security.

We have underestimated the impact of COVID-19 on us grown folks, but our children and youth are the canaries we are sacrificing. The most vulnerable of these is where we are seeing the greatest hurt – poor children of color, girls, differently-abled and LGBTQA+. The consequences are that young people are both the victims and perpetrators of violence.

According to the Center for Disease Control, homicide has been the leading cause of death for Black men ages 15 to 44 for almost fifty years. In 2021 more Black men ages 15 to 24 died in gun homicides than from unintentional injuries, suicide, heart disease, COVID-19, cancer, non-firearm homicides, diabetes, birth defects, police shootings, cerebrovascular diseases, anemia, sepsis, influenza and pneumonia, and HIV combined. Sadly, gun violence has been the leading cause of death for Black children since 2006.

Rates of suicide among Black youth have risen faster than in any other racial group in the past twenty years. The suicide rates for Black males 10-19 years-old increased by 60%. Just a few years ago, suicide was the third leading cause of death for African Americans, ages 15 to 24.

The accessibility of high-powered guns has dramatically increased the numbers of mass and school shootings. So much so that news of a mass shooting hardly gets national attention anymore and has become normalized. If students have not directly experienced a school shooting, there is anticipation that they will, as they practice drills to be prepared when there’s an active shooting on the premises.

Children have lost family members to COVID and to gun violence. In some cases, children were left without parents and had to be placed with other unprepared family members or became a statistic in the foster care system. As a community, these circumstances have not allowed us to grieve our individual or collective losses. For children, it will always be more devastating. We must create the essential healing spaces to foster the particular traumatic times of today.

Our mental health system must be taken to scale and fully integrated into the healthcare system. The profession is woefully short of the numbers of psychologists, therapists and healers necessary to take care of the emotional and psychological sides of our well-being. Governments and universities must work together to provide incentives to draw legions of people into these professions.

There should be at least one social worker for every 250 students. Instead, we think a cop in the school building is more important. There must be sufficient school and/or community-based recreational activities for children and youth so that they have real kid fun with their friends. Laughter and joy must replace tears and sadness.

Together, we must provide children and youth with the coping skills necessary to navigate the world they live in now – not the world of a generation ago. As we come out of the pandemic, let’s not be slow learners and doers. We have enough information and data at our fingertips to start a robust plan for the mental health of our citizens.

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