In this op-ed, Lauren Cikara, Vice President of School Mental Health at Active Minds, links oppressive policies against BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth with declining mental health.
Growing political movements against inclusion in education and gender-affirming care don’t just negatively impact how marginalized young people exist in schools, it can also quickly erode their mental health. With the recent influx of legislation that targets school curriculum, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students are facing isolation and uncertainty in the classroom. Despite bearing the brunt of these attacks, mental health care has not taken into account the unique and distressing climate these young people are contending with.
Our country’s wrought history of racial prejudice and discrimination has paved the way for marginalized young people’s current struggles with mental health. Despite the longstanding impacts of systemic racism and homophobia, the recent wave of anti-Critical Race Theory and “don’t say gay” legislation has impacted what educators can say about racism and homophobia, including allowing students the space to critically debate American history — and it’s already having a detrimental impact on the experience of students of color at school.
According to the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted in 2021, one third of high school students reported experiencing racism in school. Young people who experience racism, the report found, were more likely to have poor mental health. What’s more, Black high school students were more likely to report having attempted suicide than their Asian, Hispanic, and white peers, according to the CDC’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Indigenous and Alaska Native youth, who currently have the highest rate of suicide of all demographic groups. Multiracial and Hispanic high school students reported the highest persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
These disparate outcomes for BIPOC youth are, at least in part, indicative of a longstanding system of disregard, one that rejects evidence that names systemic racism as a determinant of mental health. As the youth mental health crisis worsens, the impact of racism and marginalization on BIPOC youth is often sidelined in mental health conversations. The CDC’s assertion in 2021 that racism in America is a serious public health threat affirms what BIPOC communities have known for centuries: Systemic oppression is a primary barrier to mental health equity.
Similarly, as nearly 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation are introduced across the country, LGBTQ+ youth are left to wonder if they will ever be able to live authentically. LGBTQ+ youth report experiences of disapproval and even violence within their schools, communities, and their families. The Trevor Project reports that two-thirds of LGBTQ youth said anti-trans laws had negatively impacted their mental health, and 85% of trans and non-binary young people reported the same.
The data is clear, our students are not all right. As parents, caregivers, and educators, we owe it to them to approach mental health through understanding their unique needs. Mental health care that considers the impacts of systemic racism, discrimination, and marginalization while celebrating the intersections of identities is an effective approach to changing these outcomes. Inclusivity in mental health care begins when students know that their classrooms and schools are safe.
Dismantling systemic oppression within the infrastructure of education is a monumental task, and one that may not feel like a realistic expectation for some educators given the current climate, but there are ways that schools and educators can lead the charge in youth mental wellness by creating antiracist, LGBTQ+ affirming spaces.
Letting students lead is the first step in making long-lasting change. Students want to see the full picture, to have honest conversations around identity and mental health. Bringing varied young voices to the table and giving them the platform to discuss these issues beyond a surface level is essential. Students are known to bring these issues and conversations to peers first, with studies indicating that peer-to-peer support gives youth a chance to open up in ways they will not necessarily do with adults. We structure our mental health curriculum in alignment with these considerations at Active Minds, forefronting peer-led initiatives.
Mental health and historical oppression are irrevocably connected. As youth champions, we have the responsibility and opportunity to let our students know that we see them, that we are listening, and that we will act. Our youth deserve culturally-competent, empowering school spaces that lay the foundation for mental health curricula that are not “one-size-fits-all.” Many educators know this; it’s time to push this work further at the institutional level.
Too many students are being ignored in conversations on youth mental health. There is no single face or voice of the crisis; we must uplift the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth who are often left forgotten. As educators, advocates, clinicians, and parents and caregivers, we have the responsibility to support students of all backgrounds and to implement change that will recognize and affirm their differences rather than overlook them.