When the actress Taraji P. Henson, who has anxiety and depression, started looking for therapists for herself and her son, she couldn’t find what she was looking for.

“We needed someone we could trust that we’re comfortable talking to who’s culturally competent, and that became difficult,” she says. “If you don’t understand or empathize or have any compassion to the Black plight in America, then you can’t help me unpack my trauma.”

According to the American Psychological Association, only 4 percent of psychologists are Black. Yet, Black people report experiencing psychological distress at higher rates than White and Hispanic people. This is a particularly urgent issue among Black children. Since 1993, the suicide rate of Black children from 5 to 11 years old has increased to about twice the rate of White children, and Black teenagers are more likely than White teens to attempt suicide.

Henson, who in addition to being a mother, was also a teacher before becoming a household name, felt like she should do something to help change the landscape so other Black children did not have to search as much as she did in order to find the right care.

“When the statistics of Black children who’ve died by suicide have continued to rise, we cannot ignore that,” Henson says. “I have a platform. I have a mic. I have resources. I am compelled to do something.”

So she founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named in honor of her father who served in the Vietnam War. The foundation is working to bring more mental health support to schools in Black communities as well as to increase the number of Black therapists. Recently, the foundation offered free virtual therapy to African Americans affected by the racial unrest and the covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected people of color.

Perhaps most of all, she’s shining a spotlight on the fact that too many Black children go without mental health assistance when they so desperately need it.

The need for culturally competent mental health care

“A lot of Black youth are struggling with complex trauma, which means that on a daily basis they’re experiencing environmental traumas, or what is now known as racial trauma,” says Jennifer Mullan, emotional wellness coach and founder of Decolonizing Therapy. Considering the race-based traumatic stress Black patients are suffering with, psychologists and therapists should provide culturally competent care, she says, which is not something only health professionals of color should provide.

Cultural competence training guides help providers understand the unique communication and social needs of underserved groups while teaching them to avoid perpetuating stigmas or increasing barriers to care.

There are many factors that create complex trauma in Black children, teens and adults: Race-based traumatic stress has been heightened in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Mullan says, particularly by Black youth, who have taken on so much of the effort to protest their killings. Add to that the fact that Black children are often not seen as youth, but are treated as adults, (like Tamir Rice, who was just 12 when he was killed by police for playing with a toy gun in a park), their stress and need for therapy is compounded.

Meanwhile, Black children make up just 14 percent of the total youth population in the United States, but they make up 47 percent of the youth transferred from juvenile to adult courts. To add, a 2016 study in Economics of Education Review found that non-Black teachers have lower expectations of Black students — an attitude that perpetuates low self-esteem.

The school-to-prison pipeline

Henson understood the need for more mental health care not just because she’s parent, but because she was a substitute teacher before landing her breakout role in the film “Baby Boy” in 2001. She worked in a special education classroom full of Black boys, she said. One day, one of the boys simply said to her “I can’t learn this. I can’t do this,” she says.

She worked with the boys in that classroom to build their confidence and let them know she believed they were capable of learning. That student went on to be able to do the math problems by the time she left.

Most Black children, however, do not have a teacher who understands where they are coming from, or what their mental health needs may be. Only 7 percent of public K-12 teachers are Black. And most schools don’t have the resources to help the students who need counseling.

“If you have a child or young adult facing issues with mental health, they should feel that they have access to talk to someone,” says Jay Ruderman, president of disability inclusion organization the Ruderman Family Foundation, who recently honored Henson with its award recognizing mental health advocacy. “There should be counseling that allows them to talk either individually to a psychologist or in peer groups.”

The reality, however, is that almost no state meets the minimum student-to-mental-health expert ratio recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. Instead, Black students with mental health disorders are suspended, expelled and otherwise punished at twice the rate of White students in schools. A study in the journal Emotion found that teachers incorrectly judge the emotions of Black students as angry more often than White students. The criminalization of mental illness in Black children combined with teacher biases push Black children who need help and mental health care into the criminal justice system through school referrals instead.

Ending the cycle

The need to present as a “strong Black woman” initially kept Henson from facing her own traumas. Then, instead of simply continuing to just cope, she found strength in saying, “I’m not okay.” Now, she’s a believer in the power of therapy to start the cycle of healing for the sake of Black children.

According to statistics by Mental Health America in 2018, only about 50 percent of Black adults with mental illness received treatment. Mullan says therapy that takes historical factors and cultural needs, while focusing on healing rather than just diagnosis, can make the difference for Black people and ultimately Black youth. She explains that intergenerational trauma is not only about passing down behaviors and beliefs. “Research supports that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person's genes,” she says. “Our environment changes our genes, our DNA expression, and that is passed down to subsequent generations."

Research also shows that epigenetic changes can be reversed with trauma-focused therapy, stopping the cycle of passing down old generational wounds to children. Cultural parenting norms that have been passed down also feed into the cycle of trauma.

“Historically, the Black American woman, the enslaved African woman, actually felt the need to give stern boundaries to their children,” says Mullan. “The fear was if I, as a parent, don’t stop you from acting a certain way, master, officer, or whatever authority figure is going to kill you, hang you, or keep you in line.”

This dynamic of tough love parenting and even physical punishment, she says, is passed down through generations. The result is a generation of Black children without the proper tools and resources to stay aware of their mental health. Without widespread access to culturally competent mental health care plus systemic racism and exposure to the constant police killings of Black people, which studies show have an adverse mental health impact on Black people, a mental health crisis among Black youth is seemingly inevitable.

While Mullan believes in the power of therapy to reverse this course, she acknowledges its current limits. “You can’t separate someone’s culture and race and how they’re treated out in the world from who they are, their treatment, and their healing work within therapy,” she says. “[Therapists] must take a more environmental and social perspective, something like social workers have been doing for some time.”

Henson is a big proponent of family therapy and normalizing therapy starting at a young age to help Black children avoid resorting to coping mechanisms in the form of bad habits. “Don't wait until problems happen,” she says. “Give them the confidence now to say what they need and to get to the root of how they're feeling.”

When her son was a teenager, she was thankful he had someone to talk to about the things he was embarrassed or didn’t want to talk about with her. In the current social climate and with the presence of racism in their daily lives, Black young people are faced with an overwhelming amount of stress.

“What I see as a psychologist when I look at Black youth are these young little beings already affected and carrying the load of their parents, their great grandparents, and lineages of being kidnapped and displaced from their homeland,” says Mullan.

Without a concerted effort to prioritize Black mental health and reverse the downward trends in mental health in the Black community, Henson says the future of a generation of Black children is at stake. “Our children are bearing the burden,” says Henson. “How can they dream for the future when the future is so unsure?”

Kelly Glass is a journalist. She’s on Twitter @Kellygwriter.

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