A significant increase in mental illness and behavioral problems among adolescent African- American males demonstrates the need for new approaches to treatment and better understanding of the complex challenges facing these youths, according to a policy paper issued by Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved, an advocacy group based at Morehouse School of Medicine.
The paper, titled "The Secret Epidemic: Exploring the Mental Health Crisis Affecting Adolescent African-American Males," outlines data indicating that mental health problems are rising among members of this at-risk group, their access to treatment facilities is relatively low and treatment strategies must be revamped to address the socioeconomic issues confronting them.
"Our research found that many young black males are treatable, but they are going undiagnosed because of failures in America's health-care system," said Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, director of Community Voices, an Atlanta-based nonprofit advocating improved health services and access to health care. "Our entire society feels the impact of this failure. Suicides and homicides have increased for this group, and the residual effect is impacting communities across the country. This problem must be addressed."
In a related development, the Youth Suicide Prevention Program and the Washington State Department of Health are holding a statewide Youth Suicide Prevention Conference Sept. 22 at the Marriott Seattle Tacoma Airport.
The conference focuses on suicide prevention and early intervention for five specific communities of youth: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender; homeless; youth in foster care; youth in the juvenile justice system; and those from tribal communities.
Organizers say their goal is to engage educators, counselors, mental health and other professionals to attend, but most importantly, they're working to maximize attendance by youth – who can attend at no charge.
For more information call 206-417-7776, or email [email protected].
In King County, the number of suicides in 2006 – the most recent year statistics are available -- was 227, comprising 11 percent of all the deaths that the King County Medical Examiner's Office investigated. Eleven suicides were by African Americans, nine of those were men. By comparison, almost 87 percent of suicides are by Whites, and seven percent are by Asians.
Dr. Claire Xanthos, a health services research specialist for Community Voices, wrote the paper, which cites studies showing that Black males ages 15-19 die from homicide at 46 times the rate of their White counterparts and that from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate for Black adolescents rose from 5.6 to 13 per 100,000 of the population.
"These figures should not be surprising since adolescent African-American males in contemporary American society face major challenges to their psychological development and well-being," Xanthos says. "In addition to dealing with the physical, mental and emotional issues typically experienced during adolescence, adolescent African-American males are confronted with unique social and environmental stressors. They must frequently cope with racism and its associated stressors, including family stressors, educational stressors, and urban stressors."
The report notes four major points:
- Racism can affect mental health by reducing socioeconomic status, diminishing access to desirable resources and contributing to poor living conditions.
- When positive adult male role models are absent, many Black youths turn to their peers for help in forming a male identity, an adaptation that often means absorbing negative influences.
- Urban stress is an important factor in the psychological development of young Black males because many live in deprived and dangerous neighborhoods where they are exposed to violence.
- Significant problems are also encountered by Black males who grow up in predominantly White, middle-class communities where they feel distanced from the White youths and also from Blacks from poorer communities.
The report makes a plea for better access to mental health treatment for young Black males, noting that they currently often confront a "confusing maze" when trying to get help.
The paper notes that when young Black youths do find treatment, depression is often overlooked because their symptoms often differ from White youths'. For cultural and social reasons, Black youths often express suicidal feelings through somatic complaints rather than sadness or depression.
The report also calls for more "bicultural'' training for young Black males to better prepare them to follow proper behavior in school and the workplace, while also working to help them deal with the discrimination they are likely to face. Also cited is the need for a significant increase in the number of Black therapists available to work with African-American youths.
Dr. Treadwell said it is essential that new policies be implemented to address the social and environmental factors that create poor mental health outcomes for young Black males.
"We must increase the capacity of America's mental health system to help resolve the problems faced by young Black males," she said. "There must be more research in this area, and more people of color must be trained and hired to help this at-risk group."