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New study shows black teens crumbling under an "avalanche" of trauma

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New study shows black teens crumbling under an
February 06, 2024
Nahal Garakani - LA Post

A new study in JAMA Psychiatry sheds light on the alarming effects online racism has on Black adolescents' mental well-being. Researchers discovered that Black children and teenagers who encounter racial discrimination online may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The research involved 525 African American adolescents aged 11-19. Heading the research was Dr. Ashley Denise Maxie-Moreman, a child psychologist from Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C. Dr. Maxie-Moreman acknowledged cyberbullying troubles all children but emphasized for African American minors, web-based racial harassment poses heightened hazards.

The participants reported several PTSD symptoms in response to online racism, including feeling on guard, having intrusive thoughts, and distress. Those who developed PTSD symptoms were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. While the study did not find a direct link between online racism and suicidal ideation, Dr. Maxie-Moreman said a more extensive study could uncover a connection.

This research comes as suicide rates for Black youth have risen 144% from 2007-2020, the fastest increase among all racial groups. Experts agreed the findings demonstrate the severe psychological harm racism in any form can have. "Witnessing the evidence of harm being done to Black people either by law enforcement or vigilantes can create a sense of helplessness or hopelessness," said Michael Lindsey, Dean at NYU Silver School of Social Work.

Dr. Amanda Calhoun, a psychiatrist at Yale, said high suicide rates stem from systemic and interpersonal racism Black children face, including adultification, criminalization, and harsh school punishments. "Anti-Black racism is a primary driver of declining mental health in Black children," she stated.

The study authors recommended online platforms monitor and reduce hate speech to create safer digital spaces. Dr. Maxie-Moreman said, "It's scary to think our Black youth could have suicidal thoughts because of racist online content."

Experts suggest several supportive solutions, including parents openly discussing the discrimination their children face. Schools can connect students to mental health services through counselors and social workers.

However, some joint therapy approaches may be ineffective or even harmful to Black youths' unique experiences. Dr. Calhoun cautioned that cognitive behavioral therapy can become unhelpful "gaslighting" by challenging Black children's lived realities of unfair treatment.

Dr. Kevin Simon, Boston's first chief behavioral health officer, said providers must validate patients' experiences, counter devaluation with affirmations, and acknowledge the impacts of racism. "You are just as good of a person that you're supposed to be," he tells Black youth.

Racism, whether online or in the real world, can have devastating mental health consequences for Black children and teenagers. This eye-opening study reveals the urgent need for supportive solutions to address this crisis affecting Black youth in our communities. As rates of PTSD symptoms and suicidal ideation continue rising, action must be taken now by policymakers, schools, healthcare providers, and families.

The study's findings underscore how pervasive and damaging racism is for the wellbeing of Black youth in America. Both historical and present-day discrimination seep into young Black minds, shaping their worldviews and self-perceptions. The onslaught of racism - blatant or subtle, online or offline - has tangible mental and physical health effects.

Dr. Maxie-Moreman's research indicates online racism may compound pre-existing trauma in Black children. The risk of suicidal thoughts points to profound hopelessness setting into vulnerable, developing brains. "It's terrifying," Dr. Maxie-Moreman said, that virtual hate speech could drive Black teens toward ending their lives.

Michael Lindsey at NYU connected this to the learned helplessness theory - Black kids internalize they cannot control racism enacted upon them. This drives rising rates of depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, and overall declining mental health.

The study authors rightly argued social media platforms need stronger guardrails to protect users. However, individual sites moderating content cannot alone resolve the root causes of racism that penetrate Black youth's reality. Broader action is required to support their well-being and ability to thrive.

Firstly, parents and caregivers play a crucial role through open, honest dialogue about discrimination. Silence or dismissal of Black children's encounters with racism can heighten isolation and suffering. Proactive conversations build trust and resilience.

Secondly, schools must improve mental health resources and racial competence among counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. These staff can detect warning signs, educate peers and teachers, and connect students with community services. However, Dr. Calhoun cautioned therapy itself can also perpetrate harm if not responsibly tailored.

Healthcare providers overall need better training on the impacts of racism and racial biases in medical systems. Cultural ignorance prevents proper diagnosis and treatment of conditions caused or worsened by discrimination. Core curriculum and licensure standards must integrate anti-racism and social determinants of health.

Lawmakers likewise bear the responsibility to pass policies that protect Black youth and mitigate damages of racism - in healthcare, education, justice, employment, housing, and beyond. Improving material conditions for Black families is vital for community mental health. Legislators must target systemic disadvantages with investments and reforms.

Of course, eradicating racism itself remains the paramount structural change needed. Achieving racial justice requires hard work across all levels of society. The steep price Black children currently pay for prejudice can no longer be brushed aside.

With coordinated efforts, hope glimmers that one day, Black youth may know a world free from odds stacked against them. Where they feel safe, valued, and empowered to reach full human potential, unencumbered by hate, we all gain by raising generations not burdened by the trauma of discrimination.

This vision animates racial justice advocates who have long worked to bend the arc closer toward equality. As findings like Dr. Maxie-Moreman's further expose racism's public health crisis, the time for action is undisputed now. Black youth need protection, true liberty, and healing from centuries of wounds. Our communities can rise together to provide the care and conditions for them to thrive beyond surviving.

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