Bridge over Troubled Waters: Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Black Students: Black Children Are Overidentified for Behavior Issues at Schools and Underidentified for Mental Health Concerns

By Cokley, Kevin; Cody, Brettjet et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Bridge over Troubled Waters: Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Black Students: Black Children Are Overidentified for Behavior Issues at Schools and Underidentified for Mental Health Concerns


Cokley, Kevin, Cody, Brettjet, Smith, Leann, Beasley, Samuel, Miller, I. S. Keino, Hurst, Ashley, Awosogba, Olufunke, Stone, Steven, Jackson, Stacey, Phi Delta Kappan


On April 8, 2014, Karyn Washington, creator of the For Brown Girls web site, committed suicide. Just 22 years old, Washington reportedly had dealt with depression and mental illness for much of her life and had created For Brown Girls to promote self-love for black girls who struggle to embrace their dark features.

What access to mental health services did Washington have as a student? What cultural considerations would mental health professionals in school settings have given to her and other black girls who contend with the same self-esteem and body image issues that all girls confront as well as the racialized and culture-specific issues related to skin color, hair, and white standards of beauty?

Now think of the archetype of the black male student who is labeled emotionally/behaviorally disturbed because he is perceived to be impulsive, aggressive because he acts out and gets in fights, and exhibiting learning difficulties because he performs below grade level. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black children are almost three times more likely than white children to be labeled as having a mental disorder and almost twice as likely to be labeled as having an emotional/behavioral disorder (Losen & Orfield, 2002).

Are black boys really disproportionately emotionally and behaviorally disturbed compared to other students? Or are they reacting to the biases and the cultural incompetence of teachers and mental health professionals who often harbor negative stereotypes about them?

Now consider the highly publicized incidences of violence against black teenagers. I Fifteen-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was y shot and killed on Chicago's South Side, one week after performing with her high school band at President Obama's 2013 inauguration. Unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla., by volunteer security guard George Zimmerman, who perceived him to be a threat. In Ferguson, Mo., a white police officer killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in broad daylight.

The psychological effects of violence are long-lasting. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are undoubtedly high among black youth who are frequently exposed to random and senseless acts of violence, either by other black youth or by police. How prepared are school mental health professionals to deal with the psychological and emotional aftermath of black students struggling with the seemingly low value placed on black life?

These are examples of mental health challenges that we believe uniquely affect black students. However, far too little attention and research has examined the specific mental health needs of black students. And urban areas offer less mental health care to African-American and Latino students than their white peers (Howell & McFeeters, 2008).

According to the Children's Defense Fund, black and other racial/ethnic minority children have many unmet mental health needs (Children's Defense Fund, 2010). Complicating matters is the interaction of low socioeconomic status with mental health functioning. Because a disproportionate number of black and racial/ethnic minority children are from low-income families, their mental health needs can be overlooked or misinterpreted as other problems.

Socioeconomic status and race

A critical component in understanding mental health issues in black communities is recognizing the connection between mental health and socioeconomic status. Individuals living in poverty are more likely to experience psychological distress because of insufficient familial, social, and psychological resources (Wickrama & Vazsonyi, 2011). According to the 2011 American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.), 39% of children younger than 18 living in poverty are black. Thus, about 4.3 million black youth are confronted with race and poverty-related stressors.

Experiences common to low-SES populations include single-parent households, overcrowded homes, multigenerational experiences of financial stress, exposure to neighborhood violence, and substance abuse. …

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