In 2023, it’s no surprise that Black teens and young adults are struggling. This year’s news cycle has been dominated by examples of racism and how it shapes society. In early January, Tyre Nichols was killed by police officers. Later that month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned an AP African American Studies class statewide. At school, on social media, and in the world at large, young people are surrounded by reminders that they will encounter discrimination based on the color of their skin. For Black youths, this burden is not just detrimental to their mental health—it is potentially deadly.
Black children (under 13) are almost twice as likely to die by suicide than their white peers, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health in 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that suicide rates for Black youths (ages 10-24) rose significantly from 2018 to 2021. Compounding the issue, Black Americans face barriers to care that make it harder to seek help, and the stigma of discussing mental health challenges adds an additional hurdle.
What can be done to halt and begin to reverse the harm that is being done? There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution. A broad, coordinated approach is necessary. The Jed Foundation (JED) advocates for equitable support within schools, the justice system, and communities, in addition to eliminating systemic barriers to mental health care.
But in order to get started, it’s essential to understand the issues at play—and our options for resolving them.
The Status of Black Youth Mental Health
Black youths are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles than their non-Black peers. The CDC reported that suicide is increasing at a faster rate for Black youths than it is for any other racial or ethnic group (36.6%). High-profile suicides in the Black community this past year have drawn further attention to the issue.
These issues cannot be traced back to one specific source; racial discrimination, financial and institutional barriers to care, and police killings of Black Americans are just some of the many contributing factors.
Similarly, there is not one specific solution. Getting mental health care may seem like a good place to start, but Black youths are likely to encounter systemic barriers. Cost is often a prohibitive factor. Unfortunately, even those who can handle the cost may not have access. The United States is struggling with a shortage of therapists. And then it comes down to the quality of care provided: Most clinicians are white, which means that it is difficult for Black Americans to find culturally-competent care. Speaking with a culturally sensitive therapist is often key when youths are healing from racial trauma.
But Black youths may never be encouraged to seek help in the first place; caregivers and educators often fail to recognize their struggles due to a lack of understanding on how mental health issues present in teens and young adults of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Black youths may demonstrate warning signs in different ways than other young people—ways that are often interpreted as behavioral problems rather than trauma, anxiety, or depression. As a result, a punitive approach is taken: Black youths exhibiting symptoms of mental health challenges are more likely to be suspended from school, expelled, or sent into the juvenile justice system.
Intersectionality—a lens that helps us understand the way multiple forms of inequality intersect and compound—also plays a role in mental health, because our other identities may change how we experience the world. For example, Black youths who are also transgender or nonbinary face a higher risk of suicide than those with only one marginalized identity. This illustrates how the intersection of various identities presents new challenges for many youths, challenges that need to be considered when supporting large-scale reform.
The Need for Large-Scale, Community-Based Solutions
Many of the hurdles outlined above can only be removed through large-scale structural reform. However robust, this work must also drill down to address the unique lived experiences and perspectives of Black youths; evidence-based solutions must include a racially heterogeneous lens as comprehensive as they themselves are. And it must be acknowledged that the responsibility should not, and does not, rest solely on parents and caretakers, much less young people themselves.
Therefore, we must turn to community-based solutions that reach individuals where they are and when they need it most. With so many systemic issues at play, only a robust and collective effort can make a difference.
An important first step is improving access to mental health care, particularly culturally competent care. This is easier said than done, especially given the therapist shortage, but it can be facilitated through a number of avenues. Schools, for one, must become safe havens for students, with suicide intervention programs and strong support systems for Black students. Schools are one of the most effective environments for early intervention, because that is where young people spend a majority of their time. Of course, for this to work, the education system must address its history of discrimination.
More work must also be done to make higher education affordable and accessible for all. This would not only help ease the shortage of mental health care experts trained in culturally-responsive care, it also makes sure Black youths have an equal opportunity to pursue their interests and passions. Advocating for scholarship programs that give Black youth the chance to study medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and social work is a step in the right direction. Affirmative-action programs that make elite universities more accessible and equitable can also help to achieve this goal.
The field of medicine must also evolve as well. Historically, most psychiatric research has been done by and for white people, leaving a profound knowledge gap that continues to endanger Black Americans. Additionally, research topics proposed by Black scientists are less likely to be funded than topics proposed by their white counterparts—a loss to the scientific community as a whole. Society must work to promote and fund research that looks at risk factors, as well as protective factors, stressors, and disparities unique to Black youths in order to fully understand the obstacles they face and how to address them.
Finally, funding social programs and resources that uplift the Black community will foster a sense of belonging and support. Programs that reach all young people, especially those that address economic inequality, can help to establish protective factors for Black youths. Community-building is a strong, well-established method for suicide prevention and improving youth mental health.
JED’s Commitment and Call to Action
The Jed Foundation recognizes that Black teens and young adults face unique mental health challenges. JED is committed to doing the work that needs to be done to support and protect them so that they are equipped to thrive. But coordinated reform is needed in all aspects of care: Building dedicated supports in such areas as education, medicine, and the justice system can make a powerful difference. It’s past time for society to pay attention and prioritize mental health care and suicide prevention for Black youths.