As a parent, you want your child to live the best life possible. But did you know that one in ten youth has a serious mental health problem severe enough to impair functioning at home, school, and in the community? African American children in particular often face special circumstances that put them at increased risk for mental health issues.
This guide is for parents of African American children who worry their child may be in a mental health crisis, or for those who simply want to be as informed as possible to prevent potential issues. It will discuss why African American children are at increased risk, what issues they’re likely to encounter and symptoms of problems, as well as ways you can help your child overcome what he’s going through. Though this can serve as a helpful starting point, it should never be used to replace professional care.
Why African American Children Face Increased Risk
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Common disorders among African Americans include major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal behaviors (especially in men). So why the greater risk?
There are many contributing factors. While the Affordable Care Act has helped increase health insurance coverage for this population — the number dropped from 20% uninsured to 11% uninsured from 2010 to 2014 — there are still a considerable amount of individuals with none. Further, African Americans have historically been negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the healthcare system. Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment, and a lack of cultural competence by health professionals have led to a general distrust of the system within the community. Because of these misgivings, many African Americans either avoid staying in treatment or avoid seeking it altogether.
African Americans are also largely represented within communities more susceptible to mental health issues. The homeless population, for example, has an increased tendency for mental health conditions and is comprised of 40% African Americans. Poverty is another major contributor, with African Americans making up 38% of the child poverty population. Studies have also shown the population faces an increased exposure to violent crime, which can lead to PTSD and other mental health issues.
There’s also a significant psychological disposition that comes into play. There tends to be a stigma around mental health issues; many African Americans tend to misunderstand what a mental health condition actually is. Depression symptoms are often not recognized and the condition downplayed into “having the blues,” something that a person should be able to snap out of given a little time. Some may even consider it to be a personal weakness, a lack of masculinity in males, or a frowned-upon sign of vulnerability in females. This can cause children struggling with issues to refrain from seeking professional help and even from turning to a parent for support for fear of judgment or ridicule. Even if you have never written off the idea of depression, it’s possible that your child may have heard comments in school, within the community, or from other family members that may make him hesitant to come to you. He may even feel ashamed to admit how he’s feeling.
This same stigma may cause him to fail to even recognize that there’s a problem in the first place. If depression isn’t a topic of discussion, he won’t know what the symptoms look like and might not realize that the way he’s feeling is out of the ordinary. This could cause his problems to worsen and he could potentially fall into an even deeper depression.
The roles of faith and family within the African American community also play interesting roles in mental health issues. First, there’s the idea that just about any emotional or mental issues can be solved at church. Whether it’s relating personal struggles to the sermon at Sunday service or praying on a problem, it’s thought that most “should” be able to find answers through God. This combined with the support from family and loved ones in the church is often viewed as all the “therapy” one needs. And although faith can often be incorporated into one’s treatment and both religion and family play a vital role in recovery, they shouldn’t replace professional help.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Issues
Depression looks different in everyone, but African Americans tend to most often display physical symptoms like aches and pains. When exhibited with emotional indicators — persistent feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, irritability, general unhappiness, and an inability to take pleasure in once-enjoyable activities — an underlying mental issue may be the root cause. For a child in general, it could display itself in many ways. He may withdraw socially, no longer showing interest in spending time with friends or participating in extracurricular activities he once loved. He may also show an increase in fatigue, getting either too little or too much sleep. It’s especially precarious if he seems to have trouble functioning, especially in school. His grades may begin to slip as he begins to struggle with memory and concentration.
Depending on his age, a child may also display more specific symptoms. A younger child may pretend to be sick or refuse to go to school. He may also start clinging to a parent or begin to worry about the death of one or both parents. Older children may sulk, have a change in demeanor and become negative or irritable, or start getting into trouble at school. Because these are often viewed as normal mood swings typical of a child progressing through development, it can be difficult to decipher what’s a sign of depression and what’s simply a shift in hormones. It’s important, however, to keep a sharp eye for the warning signs as childhood depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, especially if left untreated.
Bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is another tricky mental health issue within the African American community. Although it’s no more prevalent as far as occurrence, it’s more likely to go untreated due to a failure to diagnose. This condition causes those afflicted to go from extreme highs (mania) to extreme lows (depression). Again, because of the major changes a growing child goes through in development, it can be difficult to recognize the symptoms. According to Mental Health America, mania symptoms may include:
- Excessive energy, restlessness, racing thoughts, or rapid talking
- Denial anything is wrong
- Extremely happy feelings
- Needing little sleep
- Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities
- Poor judgment
Depression symptoms in those with bipolar disorder are the same as those previously described. If you notice both extremes, mania and depression, occurring in your child on a regular basis, he may be at risk for bipolar disorder. A physician should be consulted for official diagnosis.
Both of these conditions can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. The American Association of Suicidology recommends remembering the warning signs of suicidal behavior with the mnemonic: IS PATH WARM?
He also may begin writing or talking about suicide, even outright threatening taking his own life. These kinds of statements should never be taken lightly, even if he says he’s joking. Seek professional help immediately if he begins displaying these kinds of behaviors.
How You Can Help
Above all, one of the most important things you can do to help your child is to keep the lines of communication open. Don’t only talk to him when something seems to be wrong; have regular conversations with him about school, friends, and any potential pressures. Talk to him about how he’s feeling and let him know it’s OK to feel sad or overwhelmed. Listen well, be understanding, and offer patience and encouragement. Never dismiss his feelings, but do help him get perspective when he needs it. Mental health issues can often make problems seem enormous, so help him take a step back to see them for what they really are. Most importantly, offer hope — let him know that no problem is too big to conquer, especially if you work together, and help him find solutions to his worries. It’s often helpful to break down the answers into smaller steps so they seem more feasible. Remind him you’ll be there every step of the way cheering him on.
African American children of both genders face unique struggles during puberty which can exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions. Boys often feel pressure to “stay cool” and seemingly invincible, so it’s important to remind him that having bad days is normal and asking for help when he needs it is actually a sign of strength. African American girls face a battle on both ends: on the one hand, it’s important for them to appear and feel strong. On the other hand, however, they may face ridicule for being “too strong.” Talk to your daughter about this challenge and if she ever feels caught in the middle.
What could make all the difference to your children is sharing your own struggles; it could be a similar situation you’re currently facing or one you’ve encountered in the past, especially when you were at that age. Children look up to their parent, and it can be a comfort for them to know that not only have you felt the same pressures, but you overcame them.
Talk to your child about getting professional treatment if you think he may benefit from it. Even if he turns you down or if you aren’t sure it’s reached that point, make sure he knows that the option is always there for him and there’s absolutely no shame in asking for it. Revisit the idea if he seems hesitant and don’t wait for him to come to you — even if you’ve talked about it before, he still might not know how to come to you about it later.
African American children face unique struggles when it comes to mental health. It’s critical for parents to understand how to identify symptoms of deeper issues and know about different options for seeking help. And of course, it’s important that your children know through your words and actions that your role is to support and love them unconditionally, no matter what hardships they may go through.