By Janiya Battle
When trauma in the black community is discussed, and its causes and possible cures are talked about in public, a key topic is often left out.
That would be mental health issues, the kind that are often caused or made worse by issues including physical and emotional trauma fatherlessness and sexual assault.
What health care professionals call “”Adverse Childhood Experiences,’ known as ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and wellbeing of young people. The types of ACEs range from abuse of any kind, physical, mental, sexual or all three, to the silent trauma of being caught between divorced or divorcing parents. Drug use by family members, and the violence that often comes with it, can form an ACE. So can having an incarcerated parent.
When children repeatedly experience traumatic situations such as sexual or physical abuse, parents are often in denial about the effect it can have on the child’s mental health. This denial can cause extra stress for a child, on top of the regular stressors of everyday life.
According to a study by the Children’s Defense Fund, nearly half of black adults say that this is a hard time to grow up African-American.
The study said that people feel that parents, schools and churches are the most-likely groups to make a positive impact. The study quoted a young person saying: “We can help the schools get better, but if you’re at your house, at that level, if you’re not being reached, then we’re not going to change anything.”
With all that happening, what makes parents reluctant to get mental health care?
Parents of nearly all ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds are often hesitant to let their children see a therapist, said Melissa Sporn, a child psychologist in Washington, D.C.
In Jewish families like her own, however, it is almost expected that people will see therapists, she said. Her own mother did, long before it was common.
But the fear of losing their children to a government’s social services department, or having their parenting scrutinized, make parents reluctant to seek care, said Sporn. Many parents believe that “what happens in the house, stays in the house.”
There are three main reasons why parents resist getting their child diagnosed and treated for mental health issues:
- Insecurity: Parents can become insecure about their parenting skills, and don’t want to be told they are doing it wrong. “When kids come out, they don’t come with instructions…” which means there is not a set way to raise them “right,” says Sporn. Parents fear that a therapist would scrutinize their parenting skills and tell them they did it all wrong and it’s their fault.
- Cultural Betrayal: “It’s almost like telling secrets. This is happening in our family we can handle it within our family. To go outside the family somehow feels like a betrayal,” says Sporn. Parents from African-American, Arabic, Asian, and Hispanic cultures tend to have this mindset, she said
- Invasion of privacy: Seeking professional help for mental health issues makes parents feel like they have had their homes invaded.
“There’s embarrassment and a real stigma” to seeking mental health care in the African American community, said Carmen Garner, an art teacher in Washington, D.C. and author of “From Here to There.” ‘We’re already behind the Eight Ball being black, and you want to add mental issues?’”
That keeps families from seeking help, he said.
Jeff May Jr., a motivational speaker, writes that thoughts like “what happens in the house stays in the house” can be dangerous. Hearing this statement constantly causes a child to suppress their true emotions. It acts, in a way, as a type of a shield or curtain, to hide what was wrong inside the family.
“The truth is that if what happens in this house stays in this house, it will ultimately lead to the destruction of this house,” May said.
Garner’s own life illustrates how kids internalize their negative experiences, and deflect their feelings. He grew up in an extremely troubled family, where family members and others used heroin and cocaine, and were physically violent. He used to get up at 7 a.m. and walk to another family’s house that was a “safe haven” to get away.
No less an authority than former Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who was a clinical psychologist, argues for a change in that attitude.
“We’ve got to get people to the point where they realize that staying silent at times, is putting the child in harm’s way,” Gray said in an interview.
Schools need more mental health resources, but also teachers who are “empathetic” to what some children go through with their families, he said, after a youth health hearing at which Urban Health Media Project students testified.
“Kids have some really traumatic experiences going on at home,” said Gray. “They may see their aunt get beaten, or someone murdered at the playground.”
One of the hardest things to talk about seems to be the epidemic of fatherless families. A study by the National Center of Education Statistics in 2001 found that 39% of students in grades one through 12 live in a home with an absent father. More than 72% of children in the African-American community are born to unmarried parents, according to a 2010 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 85% of black youth in prison come from a fatherless home, according to a 1992 study of the Fulton County, Ga. correctional center.
Shawn Hardnett, a longtime D.C. educator, has called out fatherless families as a mental health crisis. Hardnett, founder of Northstar Middle School for Boys charter school, due to open in fall 2018, explains that a lot of mental health problems in children start with the absence of a biological father in the home and the child’s life.
“The greatest trauma that young people face today is fatherlessness,” said Hardnett.
Schools in urban centers including Washington, D.C. need many more resources to help with mental health, said Garner.
“In order to fix a child, you have to heal them first,” he said.