Opinion: Black youth face mental-health disparities

Bukola Salami, Mamaylia Soungie, River Getty-Maina, Oluseyi Oladele 4 minute read January 26, 2022

Demonstrators cheer during the A Fight for Equity rally at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, on Friday, June 5, 2020. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

Black youths in Canada experience poor mental health outcomes. Several factors intersect to influence the mental health of Black youths, including racism and discrimination, gender inequity, stigma, low income, and societal pressure. These experiences also explain why many in the Black community hesitate to seek help for their mental health.

In a recent study conducted by some members of our team, we found that geographical location also affects access to mental health services for Black youths. Black youths often feel they cannot enter mental-health facilities because many of them are located in mainly white upper-class neighbourhoods, which makes it feel as if these services are not made for them. Lack of sense of community can also adversely affect the mental health of Black youths. Lack of diversity of service providers can lead to feelings of not being able to connect with their therapist or having to add the extra stress of explaining their experiences through a non-Black perspective.

These issues regarding mental health are exacerbated when the topic of intersectionality is brought up within the Black community. Intersectionality accounts for how diverse social locations, including gender, race, and income, can interact in multiple ways to influence the health experience of individuals and communities.

Black LGBTQ2S+ youth are a multiply marginalized group that experiences many issues related to intersectionality. Youth with these identities face multiple forms of both racist and anti-LGBTQ2S+ oppression that pose challenges to their mental health. Among Black youth, rates of PTSD, depression, and suicide are increasing, while LGBTQ2S+ youth report rising cases of anxiety, self-harm, and suicide.

Black LGBTQ2S+ youth are exposed to both of these rates simultaneously, and having more than one minority status comes with a complex set of experiences to which professionals may struggle to relate. Additionally, these young adults have some of the lowest rates of mental-health service utilization due to distrust of anyone perceived to have insufficient knowledge of sexuality, gender, and racially based issues. This distrust stems from a fear of being dismissed or misunderstood, and the repercussions include a vulnerable group of young individuals not getting the necessary, professional help they deserve.

Furthermore, Black LGBTQ2S+ youth deal with misunderstanding from groups to which they are supposed to look for support. They face cultural opinions that condemn anything outside of being cisgender and heterosexual from the Black community, as well as discrimination and hostility against non-white individuals from the LGBTQ2S+ community. Constant exposure to this lack of acceptance contributes to feelings of alienation and hurt, and effectively explains the rising rates of mental illness, self-harm, and suicide among Black LGBTQ2S+ youth.

If there is to be any change in promoting and improving the mental health of Black youth, all individuals must do their part to help combat mental health disparities. The first place to start would be educating oneself on the specific issues faced by Black youth, especially Black LGBTQ2+ youth, to ensure an appropriate amount of sensitivity and empathy can be expressed. Second would be to acknowledge that Black and Black LGBTQ2S+ youth face a unique set of challenges based on their distinct identities, and to not dismiss or approach these challenges as if they were the same as those confronting non-Black, non-LGBTQ2S+ youth. Being an ally with Black Canadians, including Black LGBTQ2S+ youths, includes educating members of the community, advocating for improved access to services, and supporting the Black community.

And finally, one of the most important steps is to always be available to listen, free of judgement, to the struggles and feelings of Black youth, solidifying that they are being seen, heard, and appreciated.

Mamaylia Soungie is a student in the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program.

River Getty-Maina is a student in the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program.

Dr. Oluseyi Oladele is assistant clinical professor in the department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta.

Dr. Bukola Salami is associate professor at the faculty of nursing; director of Intersection of Gender Signature Area; founder of the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program, University of Alberta.

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