Gonzales is a small city in central California populated mostly by Latino immigrant families and farmworkers. Like other places, it has felt the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.
When Covid-19 hit, the city’s youth council conducted an online mental health survey of middle and high schoolers. The students received an overwhelming response that revealed high levels of anxiety symptoms and stress among their peers. The findings were a wake-up call to local leaders unaware of the depth of mental health issues their young people faced.
Gonzales isn’t alone. The same thing is happening in other parts of the country where symptoms of anxiety and depression are increasing among adolescents and emerging adults of color.
In Boston, where I lead research efforts to address mental health disparities, I’m hearing this from Latino parents who participate in our studies as well as from clinicians who see youths in the city’s hospitals. They are urging our team to not just study the problem but to also include services for adolescents living with stress, anxiety, and depression, burdened by family hardships and uncertain about their futures.
The mental health toll of Covid-19 is serious and likely long-lasting. And as with other aspects of Covid-19, it is hitting communities of color the hardest.
Black and Latino groups across all ages are reporting higher rates of symptoms of anxiety and depression than their white counterparts. The rates among youths are even more alarming. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 24% increase in the proportion of children going to emergency departments for mental health care in the first six months of the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019. This rate increased by 30% among adolescents.
Latino and Black children are also twice as likely to experience economic- and health-related impacts due to Covid-19. These experiences can both create and heightened mental health problems. As young people worry about their families’ futures, they also worry about their own. This intergenerational transmission of hardship might be erasing their hope for a future.
We owe Black and Latino youths, who are our present and our future, a strong and accessible system of mental health resources, one that is confidential, easy to access, and available in Spanish as well as English.
Barely two weeks into the Biden-Harris administration, it has signed executive actions that can begin to reduce these burdens, including extending the moratorium on evictions; advocating a permanent path to citizenship for nearly 1 million DREAMers; and requiring every federal agency to ensure that dollars are equitably distributed across communities.
The administration recognizes that the pandemic has made access to mental health and substance use treatment services essential. The president has asked Congress to do more, including appropriating $4 billion to enable agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to mental health and substance use treatment.
These are promising and necessary steps. I urge the country’s leaders to target dollars toward a truly equitable system that supports youth of color, including:
Increasing investments in social services to address social factors such as food insecurity, neighborhood violence, and loss of jobs, all of which affect mental health.
Expanding federal regulations to fund novel behavioral health treatment programs for communities of color with high Covid-19 exposure and unemployment rates. We need to identify the communities suffering the most based on data that states and counties are collecting and target resources appropriately.
Accelerating expansion of the mental health workforce through training and education. Federal and state governments can build a workforce that is racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse by offering to people of color and multilingual aspiring professionals repayment programs for school loans.
Widening access to mental health services by creating a national hotline that people could call anonymously to get help. After 9/11, New York City did this and saw huge engagement. A similar system is being tested in California where a Latino-focused task force launched a mental health care hotline. This model has caught the eye of Vice President Harris.
We should encourage young people to create their own change and listen to them when they do, as happened in Gonzalez. The city’s teenagers identified a problem, gathered evidence, and shared it with local leaders. The result: The city and school district hired a second social worker. This kind of youth civic engagement improves how young people see themselves and their power to make a difference.
By 2060, more than two-thirds of Americans under 18 will likely be people of color. Black and brown young people are our future. But policymakers owe them robust, accessible, and culturally competent mental health care now. Without it, the future social structure and economy will be at risk.
Margarita Alegría is a psychologist, chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and The Mongan Institute in Boston, and a professor in the departments of medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.