(Courtesy Photo)

With suicide rates on the rise among Black youth, the Congressional Black Caucus recently convened a long-overdue Task Force on Black Youth Suicide. It was sparked by the tragic loss of Mckenzie Adams, a nine-year old who died by suicide last year. The child ended her own life after being mercilessly bullied by classmates—for, among other reasons, being Black. Another Black student named Nigel Shelby took his own life last month after being repeatedly bullied for being gay. Nigel was just 15-years old.

Schools are supposed to be places of hope, support, and community. For students like Nigel and Mckenzie, schools can become places of humiliation, fear, and trauma. Their stories illustrate the critical need for mental health resources for our children, especially those who are marginalized and have intersectional identities. Their stories point to the nationwide failure of schools to provide adequate mental health services to students. Because of the historic oppression and trauma perpetrated against our community for centuries, Black people have unique needs. Despite these needs, Black people are seven times more likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods with limited access to mental health resources. Students of color are more likely to attend school with fewer resources for critical staff like counselors and school psychologists. This is a travesty because studies have found 70 to 80 percent of youth receive their mental health services in schools.

We recently published a report at ACLU that found severe shortages of school-based mental health (SBMH) providers in schools across the country, and especially in California. The student-to-counselor ratio was 444:1 nationwide. This suggests counselors are seriously over­worked, with student caseloads 78 percent greater than what is recommended by experts (2501-to-1). California had the third highest ratio in the country with just one counselor for every 682 students; there are schools in Los Angeles where a single counselor is responsible for serving nearly 1,000 students. Meanwhile, schools have continued to divert funds that could provide these critical services to hire police officers.

Our report also found:

  • 1.7 million students in a school with a police officer but no counselor;
  • 3 million students in a school with police but no nurses;
  • 6 million students in a school with police but no psychologist;
  • 10 million students in a school with police but no social workers;
  • 14 million students in a school with a police officer but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker.

This deficit in support staff is appalling, and students and teachers alike are feeling the effects of the missing resources. Just this year teachers in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento went on strike for the first time in decades. They are demanding SBMH providers and supports for their students because they are prerequisites for a successful school. The LA County Board of Supervisors made steps in the right direction by providing LAUSD 9.7 million dollars to support mental health in schools. We know there are hundreds of millions more available to counties to invest into communities through initiatives like the Mental Health Services Act, and we need to see more of it flowing to communities in crisis. There are over 80 school districts in LA county alone, and our students are significantly less likely to see a counselor or social worker than most students across the country.

It’s Mental Health Month 2019, and our African ancestors came to the United States in chains exactly 400 years ago in 1619. We’ve endured centuries of oppression, and students like Mckenzie are still being subjected to racism and discrimination. Black children all over the nation are suffering, in need of resources that are not readily available in schools and communities. How we prepare for and respond to children in need of support are choices, and research is clear that providing more mental health professionals is the best approach. But the lack of counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists, coupled with the rise in school police, has created a school environment that neglects our students’ needs. Student welfare has to be taken more seriously. Black minds matter. Schools, not prisons.

 For additional information, please contact Dr. Amir Whitaker; Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @DrKnuckyEsq; Instagram: @Dr.KnuckleHead_Esq