A community of optimists hosted by Melinda Gates

Black Girl Magic and Black Boy Joy Start with Healthy Minds

Young women who are black play outside with their friends.
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Black youth are disproportionately more likely not to receive treatment for the same mental illness symptoms as their white peers — or to be funneled into the juvenile justice system in response to those symptoms. What’s more, even when youth of color do get access to care, they are less likely to be treated by a provider of their cultural background, less likely to receive behavioral health care for an accurate diagnosis, and less likely to encounter a provider with specific training and skill in culturally competent care.

I often wonder if the cost of our failing to act on the mental health needs of Black youth and youth of color is losing a generation of healthy, thriving minds. Can we afford to allow our children to grow up in a society that limits or devalues their potential? While we may not consider ourselves active participants in devaluing young people, if we do not work toward uplifting and supporting them from the inside out, we inadvertently hinder their ability to prosper.
A black man helps a young black boy paint a mural on a wall at a community center
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I honor the statistics that tell us that Black youth and other youth of color are indeed resilient. Think about this: Given disproportionate exposure to discrimination, racism, police brutality, school suspensions and expulsions, and intersectional gendered discrimination, we would expect Black youth to exhibit higher rates of depression and anxiety compared with their white peers. But that’s not the case. Instead, the rates of depression and anxiety in Black and white youth are quite similar (with some noted differences)—and yet, there are glaring differences in who receives care, and in the quality of care received.

All of this feels very heavy at times, but I remain hopeful, because I am an active participant in so many coalitions and organizations that are working on promising solutions. I was honored to join a working group for the Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health formed by the Congressional Black Caucus and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, which introduced the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act. My colleagues in the working group—all experts in policy, clinical training, research, and advocacy—and the many organizations on the ground working on this problem—like the organization I founded, the AAKOMA Project, as well as The Boris L. Henson Foundation, Africa’s Mental Health Matters, and the National Black Justice Coalition, to share a partial list—are committed to a more just mental health landscape for Black youth and youth of color.



If you’re wondering what you can do to support the mental health of Black young people and young people of color, here are some suggestions:

  1. You can pay attention and remain aware that mental illness does not discriminate and all youth have the potential to be impacted.

  2. You can donate resources: Give money to organizations doing the work; if you can’t give money, give your human resource of time; and if you have neither time nor money to give, give your social media chops to promote the work (seriously, go follow some youth of color mental health advocates).


  3. You can be mindful of when mental health policy, research, and clinical care represents the needs and experiences of people of color—and when it does not. For example, when you read a policy brief, or see that new, fancy “evidence-based treatment,” you can examine the sample to determine if there is adequate diversity represented. If not, you can ask questions; if so, you can feel confident that you’re promoting actual evidence.

  4. You can be fully present for the young people in your life, meaning:
    • Listen when your young person wants to talk (using active listening);
    • Remain aware of your own feelings and mental health;
    • Model regular self-care, and use and teach active coping skills, such as taking a beat instead of responding impulsively, practicing meditation or mindfulness, practicing healthy communication, and using good sleep hygiene;
    • Learn about the AAKOMA Project’s work to support youth of color during this pandemic, from virtual counseling to low-tech, high impact mental health campaign for kids without access to consistent internet, computers and Wi-Fi;
    • Seek resources to learn more, such as Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America, the full report of the taskforce I mentioned above).
Finally, I hope you will always remember what both I and the AAKOMA Project always promote: mental health research and care for all, and, most importantly, that healing starts in the heart.