By Maya Pottigier
From nearly one million Americans dead due to the pandemic and the stress of weighing the risks of every outing, to the burden of code switching, dealing with microaggressions, and fear of police violence, Black folks’ mental health has taken a hit during the pandemic.
And we’re not just talking about adults. The past two years have been especially hard for kids. Along with the stressors we’ve all experienced, they’ve dealt with the transition to remote learning and then back to in-person classes. Sports and other extracurricular activities haven’t been as regular, and they may have had to be isolated from friends and family to stop the spread of COVID-19.
This year’s Black History Month theme, Black health and wellness, is an opportunity to open much-needed conversations addressing the specific mental health needs of Black children.
It’s a conversation we need to have because Black children grow up to become adults who are suffering. Suicide rates are up and rising, particularly among Black men. Depression rates tripled during the pandemic and symptoms became worse. And, with the heightened need for therapists — particularly culturally informed ones — along with other strains on the mental health profession, it can take a long time to get assistance.
At least Black children who are in an in-person school setting, may have access to help: the school psychologist. But what does a school psychologist do, why does it matter if a school psychologist is Black, and why aren’t there more Black folks in the profession?
Depending on your experience, you might not have even known there was a psychologist at your school, or at your child’s school. School psychologists are experts in learning, behavior, and mental health, and they can provide support to students in these areas: academic and behavioral interventions, mental health resources, and consultation with teachers and families.
What Is Black Psychology?
Like pretty much any area of health, psychology is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Enter Black psychology.
It’s not a new concept. Dr. Joseph White wrote the seminal piece “Toward a Black Psychology” for Ebony magazine in 1970, explaining that mainstream psychology could not adequately be applied to African Americans.
Someone who doesn’t have the same racial or cultural background may misdiagnose, misunderstand, and misassess the challenges facing Black kids, Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Word In Black.
“It’s especially important in schools because of what we know happens too frequently with Black kids in schools,” Cokley says. “We know that Black kids are the victims of a whole host of disproportionate punishment that they experience in those schools, things that other kids, frankly, are able to kind of get away with or not be penalized for.”
The Added Responsibilities of Black School Psychologists
Having someone at school in an authoritative role who you can relate to is vital for Black students.
“For Black kids to have access to Black psychologists typically will mean having someone who will better understand your shared, lived experiences in a way that will make them be more effective as psychologists,” Cokley says.
It’s not news that Black kids are disproportionately suspended or punished with other disciplinary actions. They’re also misdiagnosed with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. This heightens the importance of a Black psychologist in a school setting.
“Having Black psychologists would allow kids to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be better understood with an understanding of their racialized experiences and not be penalized or pathologized for that,” Cokley says.
Though the transition back to in-person learning has been largely seen as a positive, Dr. Celeste Malone, the president-elect of the National Association for School Psychologists, says school was not always a welcoming or friendly environment for kids of color.
“It was a place where they experienced microaggressions, from peers and from teachers,” Malone says.
Malone also highlighted that, on top of feeling the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, Black children are also being more exposed to violence toward Black people during the country’s reckoning with structural and systemic racism. Though they may not have been physically present, being bombarded with the videos, images, and conversations about Black death contributes to feeling unsafe, and returning to a school environment that may not have always supported them isn’t always beneficial.
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