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Young people of color are our future. We need to invest in their mental health

By on March 23, 2021 0

gonzales is a small town in central california populated mostly by Latino immigrant families and farm laborers. Like other places, it has felt the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Covid-19 struck, the city’s youth council conducted a online mental health survey middle and high school students. The students received a damning response that revealed high levels of anxiety and stress symptoms among their peers. The results have been a wake-up call to local leaders oblivious to the depth of the mental health issues facing their young people.

Gonzales is not alone. The same is happening in other parts of the country where symptoms of anxiety and depression are increasing in adolescents and emerging adults of color.


In Boston, where I’m leading research efforts to address mental health disparities, I hear this from Latino parents who participate in our studies as well as clinicians who see young people in city hospitals. They urge our team not only to study the problem, but also to include services for adolescents living with stress, anxiety and depression, overwhelmed by family difficulties and uncertain about their future.

Covid-19’s mental health toll is severe and likely lasting. And as with other aspects of Covid-19, it hits communities of color hardest.


Black and Latino groups of all ages report higher rates of anxiety and depression symptoms than their white counterparts. The rates among young people are even more alarming. Data from Centers for Disaster 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 suffer the economic and health impacts due to Covid-19. These experiences can both create and worsen mental health problems. While young people worry about the future of their families, they also worry about theirs. This intergenerational transmission of difficulties could erase their hope for a future.

We owe to black and Latino youth, who are our present and our future, a strong and accessible system of mental health resources, a confidential system, easy to access and available in Spanish as well as English.

Barely two weeks after the start of the Biden-Harris administration, he signed executive measures that can begin to reduce those charges, including extending the moratorium on evictions; advocating a permanent path to citizenship for nearly a million DREAMERS; and requiring each federal agency to ensure that dollars are distributed fairly among communities.

The administration recognizes that the pandemic has made access to mental health and addiction treatment services essential. The President asked Congress Do more, including the allocation of $ 4 billion to allow Ministry of Health and Social Services agencies to expand access to mental health and addiction treatment.

These are promising and necessary steps. I urge the country’s leaders to allocate dollars to a truly fair system that supports young people of color, including:

Increase investments in social services to address social factors such as food insecurity, neighborhood violence and job loss, all of which affect mental health.

Expansion of federal regulations to fund new behavioral health treatment programs for communities of color with high Covid-19 exposure and unemployment rates. We need to identify the communities that are suffering the most based on the data that states and counties collect and target resources appropriately.

Accelerating expansion of the mental health workforce through training and education. Federal and state governments can build a racially, culturally and linguistically diverse workforce by providing people of color and aspiring multilingual professionals with school loan repayment programs.

Expand access mental health services by creating a national hotline that people could call anonymously for help. After September 11, New York City did this and saw huge commitment. A similar system is being tested in California where a Latino-focused task force launched a hotline for mental health care. This model caught the attention of Vice President Harris.

We need to encourage young people to create their own change and listen to them when they do, as happened in Gonzales. The town’s teens identified a problem, gathered the evidence, and shared it with local leaders. The result: The city and the school district hired a second social worker. This type of civic engagement by young people improves their perception of themselves and their the power to make a difference.

By 2060, more than two-thirds of Americans under the age of 18 are likely to be people of color. Black and brown youth are our future. But policymakers now owe them strong, accessible and culturally appropriate mental health care. Without it, the future social and economic structure will be threatened.

Margarita Alegría is a psychologist, head 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.