3 Things You Should Know about Black Teen Mental Health

Date Posted

July 12, 2022


Gwen Gulick

Black Teen with Locs and a Red Hat

Sounding the Alarm

We have good reason to be concerned about Black teen mental health. While the pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities, Black youth were more likely than youth in other demographic groups to have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. Black youth are less likely to access treatment because of stigma, the lack of available early intervention, and the severe shortage of mental health professionals of color. And the rate of Black youth suicides (including ages 13 and under) has been increasing rapidly.

Here are a 3 common misconceptions about Black teen mental health and the truth to correct them.

Black Teen Mental Health Myth vs. Fact

1. Myth: Rates of suicide attempts are similar for teens of all races and ethnicities.

Fact: Suicide attempt rates are climbing more rapidly among Black children and teens than those of other races. Black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than White teenagers (9.8% vs. 6.1%), according to research from the CDC. From 1991 to 2019, self-reported suicide attempts rose nearly 80% among Black teens while the rate of attempts among other races and ethnicities did not change significantly, research showed.

What accounts for the difference? In a recent article, Dr. Nicole Christian Brathwaite, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer for Scheduled Care and AtHome at Array Behavioral Care and a Families for Depression Awareness Clinical Advisory Board member, spoke about some of the unique challenges that Black individuals face. One issue she raised is the socioeconomic pressure that affects some Black communities.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged children and adolescents— for instance, those growing up in poverty—are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions than peers with higher socioeconomic status. Dr. Braithwaite also called out racism and microaggressions as significant stressors that have been shown to increase the risk of mental health conditions in African Americans.

2. Myth: Experiencing racism is not a factor in Black teen mental health.

Fact: Teens who experience racism are more likely to have poor mental health outcomes than their peers who do not.

The CDC found in a 2021 survey that Black students, along with multiracial and Asian students, were most likely to say that they had experienced racism in school at some point in their life. These students were also more likely to have poor mental health outcomes than their peers who had not experienced racism.

In addition, social media opens up many teens to incidents of racism. Researchers at Fordham University report that 94% of adolescents studied experienced indirect social media racial discrimination and 79% have experienced individual social media racial discrimination. Although all racial groups surveyed reported high levels of social media racial discrimination, reports were significantly higher among Black youth. The study also reported that social media racial discrimination among teens was significantly associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, and alcohol use disorder.

Adolescents of color who identify as LGBTQ may be especially at risk of a suicide attempt, according to a national survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group for LGBTQ youth.

3. Myth: Race shouldn’t be a factor in choosing a therapist.

Fact: Black teens often have unique risk factors and may do best with a Black therapist or a therapist who has experience with issues of racism.

When Black teens are struggling with depression, they often do not get the help they need. BIPOC students are less likely than White students to say they could reach out to a counselor if they need mental health support. Another study found that Black and Hispanic children were about 14% less likely than White youth to receive treatment for their depression. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, not only are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people in America less likely to have access to mental health services, but when they do receive care, it is often lower quality than the care their White peers receive.

Actions You Can TakeFour Black Young Women Outside Looking at a Phone

Here are steps you as family members, educators, and trusted adults can take to support the Black teens in your life.

  • Push for more research on mental health specific to Black communities. Academics, elected officials, and child health and welfare advocates make the case for targeted research to better understand the unique risk factors that affect mental health among Black teens and children. Contact your Senators and Congressional Representatives to request they provide funding for this important research.
  • Help teens find support from therapists who understand and can relate to their issues. Sites like Therapy for Black Girls and InnoPysch help connect individuals to therapists of color. People living with mood disorders now have access to treatment through technology. Options like tele-mental health services are expanding access to treatment, helping Black teens to find a therapist they can relate to and who understands their unique challenges.
  • Educate yourself. Learn about depression in teens and how you can support Black teens in your life on their mental wellness journey.

There is hope. As the U.S. Surgeon General said about mental health challenges among young people, “most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”