BY SAMARAH BENTLEY
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT
NEW ORLEANS — In one week, a patient of New Orleans clinical psychologist Dr. Baraka Perez lost three family members to COVID-19: Her father, brother and a nephew.
“I’m seeing more of that than I care to,” said Perez, who for 20 years has been helping children, adolescents and their parents cope with and move on from trauma. “My heart goes out to these people.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everyone’s life, Black and other youth of color have seen the disproportionate impact of the disease on their communities. Black and LatinX people are dying at nearly three times the rate of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The trauma of the pandemic in communities of color is only one layer of what many Black and brown teens are experiencing though, said Perez. They’ve watched with increasing frequency as people of color have been killed by police. They’ve risen up and joined protests, along with their peers, seeking equality and justice, she said.
“The combined frustration, fear, and despair has left many youth of color feeling helpless and hopeless,” Perez said. “Stress levels of youth of color, especially during a pandemic, have significantly increased making it particularly challenging to deal with the day-to-day pressure of being a person of color. “
One of the biggest challenges Perez sees in poorer neighborhoods in her area is the stigma of seeking mental health care along with the added weight of the challenges of not having enough of what they need to survive: unstable housing, food insecurity and lack of transportation, among others.
These social problems borne of poverty are a key reason health experts say people of color, who are far more likely to be poor, are being disproportionately sickened and killed by COVID-19. That causes African Americans to “experience higher levels of stresses and a greater clustering of stresses,” said David Williams, a Harvard professor who chairs the T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s department of social and behavioral sciences.
Without proper support and resources, these challenges can, at times, be too much to bear, Perez said.
Black youth suicide a “crisis”
Calling black youth suicide a “crisis,” the Congressional Black Caucus issued a report in December showing suicide attempts by Black adolescents of both sexes rose 73% from 1991 to 2017. The African American teen suicide rate was already rising far faster than for white teens.
Perez became passionate about her field after joining a club called “Peer Helpers” while in high school which offered other students who may not have been comfortable with an adult someone to talk to. She said that she aims to meet teens where they are when they come in for counseling.
“I avoid imposing any judgment or pressure, allowing them to feel comfortable,” said Perez. “Without trust, there is no therapeutic relationship.”
Once young people are comfortable, Perez said she helps them identify how their “past experiences may be influencing their present level of functioning.” For trauma survivors, it can be a lengthy process.
Perez said it’s important to acknowledge that in the black community in particular, trauma can be cumulative, and transmitted through generations.
“For generations, our people have been enslaved– whether physically, mentally, or emotionally,” she said. “Not allowing that history to determine who we are and what we can become is needed.”
Editor’s note: Samarah Bentley is a 10th grade student at Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans in New Orleans. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma” held in fall 2020. The workshop was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).