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How to support the mental health of Black teens


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The demand for mental health services in the U.S. is greater than ever, but there continues to be a national shortage of therapists and counselors. Even fewer are the number of mental health providers who specialize in supporting children and teens. Even harder to find? Mental health providers of color. 

This is particularly challenging for Black and brown teens when they, or their parents, are seeking out a provider who can understand the difficulties of historical stereotypes and the Black youth experience. 

It’s also true that, nationwide, high schoolers are struggling with their mental health. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than one third of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and 44% reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless.

With the added weight of social media pressures, performance expectations in school and activities and less of an emphasis on in-person connection, it can be difficult for parents to differentiate between a teen who’s acting appropriately for their age and one who’s struggling.

“Teenagers can be moody, and their brains and bodies are changing,” UnityPoint Health Mental Health Therapist Felicia Chumley says. 

Chumley is also an African American mother of five boys. She knows firsthand the challenges of addressing the emotional and mental health needs of Black children who don’t necessarily have the psychological safety, language or experience to express their emotions.

“It’s difficult for parents, grandparents and guardians to tell the difference between what’s normal teenage behavior and signs of mental or behavioral health issues,” Chumley says.  

Chumley says parents should be aware of changes in their teen’s routine or mood, including:

  • Reported behavior issues at school
  • Lack of motivation in school or sports
  • Getting too much sleep or not being able to sleep
  • Eating patterns, either bingeing or restricting calories
  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Irritability 

Causes of Mental Health Issues in Teens

Social media and unlimited access to information are two drivers of depression and anxiety among teenagers. Kids are under tremendous pressure to perform well in school, compete in sports or outside activities at a high level, maintain social networks and in some cases, hold down a job. Chumley says it’s up to parents to set boundaries about how adolescents spend their time. She says it’s especially important when it comes to how much time kids spend in front of screens.

“Cyberbullying is real, and it’s hurtful when kids are left out or information is made public, especially for adolescent girls,” Chumley says. 

Many young people turn to texting or social media apps, like Snapchat or BeReal, to stay connected, instead of spending time building relationships with friends, leading to a loss of connection. 

“It’s important parents put structure around how much time kids spend gaming and on social media. Set limits and monitor your child’s posts and interactions,” she adds.

For Black teens, Chumley explains that many live in households where the topic of mental health is considered taboo and not openly discussed. That can make it difficult when they are struggling or in crisis. When you consider the lack of Black and brown psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors who treat children, it puts many children of color at risk of not receiving timely treatment when they need it most.

Use your annual well-check visits to discuss not only your teen’s physical health but whether you notice they’re acting out or withdrawing from activities they normally like, too. That could be a sign they’re struggling. Don’t worry about doing the wrong thing. Just seek help.

How to Support Your Teen’s Mental Health 

If you’re a parent, grandparent, teacher or have influence in a child’s life, provide space for them to talk and then really listen. 

“I used to talk to my boys when we were in the car,” Chumley says. “It provided quality time for them to tell me about their day, and I would actively listen. It was a calm space for them and me to discuss what was bothering them.” 

Aaron McHone, UnityPoint Health Behavioral Health Service Line Director, says keeping lines of communication open is the number one thing adults can do to support kids, especially teens. 

“Acting out and being disruptive can often be a sign of an undiagnosed mental or behavioral health issue,” McHone says. “It’s important that parents allow time and a safe space for their child to share what’s happening, so they can determine if help is needed.”

He warns kids who seemingly have it all together; students who are on the honor roll, involved in sports or other extracurricular activities and have lots of friends could also be struggling. 

If you’re concerned and not sure where to turn, McHone recommends starting with your school counselor, nurse or your teen’s primary care doctor. 

“Use your annual well-check visits to discuss not only your teen’s physical health but whether you notice they’re acting out or withdrawing from activities they normally like, too. That could be a sign they’re struggling,” McHone says. “Don’t worry about doing the wrong thing. Just seek help.”

Additionally, Chumley says it’s OK to give kids a day off from school if they feel like they need to reset. 

As a society, we’re getting better at saying, ‘Mentally, I’m not okay.’ Sometimes teens, like adults, need to take time to take care of themselves and focus on their mental health and well-being. If Simone Biles could withdraw from Olympic competition to protect her mental health, our kids can take a day off from school.”

How to Talk to Teens about Suicidal Thoughts, If You’re Concerned

In Iowa, suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth and young adults ages 15-24 (higher than the national average). Black and African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers, too.

Chumley says kids often reach out in subtle ways their friends and family may not notice.

“Sometimes a child will say, ‘I don’t want to be here today.’ If you hear something like that, take it seriously and ask more questions,” she adds. 

If you’re concerned your teen is having suicidal thoughts, Chumley suggests a few ways to engage with them:

  • Ask what’s causing them stress.
  • Ask if your teen is considering suicide. Chumley says this is OK to do and won’t give them an idea they’re not already thinking about.
  • Ask if they have plan, and how they would carry it out.

Additionally, if you believe your child is a risk to themselves or others, call the new national mental health hotline: 988. Think of it as 911 for mental health. You’ll be connected to trained counselors who are part of the existing Lifeline network. These counselors will listen, provide support and connect your teen to resources, if necessary. 

If you have concerns about your child’s mental or behavioral health, the first place to start is talking to your teen’s primary care provider. They can evaluate your child and make a referral if more help is needed. To find a provider near you, visit unitypoint.org/find-a-doctor.aspx.