Rep. Ritchie Torres on the Youth Mental Health Emergency

Throughout my life, I have struggled with my own mental health – and without proper treatment, I would not be alive today. My own lived experience is why I am committed to dismantling the shame that too often surrounds mental illness by reframing it as what it is: a diagnosable, treatable health issue integral to our well-being. I want for my constituents, and for every American, the same access to health care that transformed my life and sent me on a trajectory from dropping out of college at my lowest point to the United States Congress today.

There is something universal about the struggle with mental health. All of us have experienced difficulties with mental health or known someone in our lives who has grappled with mental illness. But the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on our young people over the last two years has greatly exacerbated the mental health crisis in America. Many children are experiencing steep declines in their mental health after over a year of pandemic-induced isolation and uncertainty.

I cannot understate the psychological toll on people of color that systemic racism and its brutalizing effects have taken on children of color. Despite the renewed national reckoning on racial disparities in nearly every aspect of our lives, mental health status and care for children of color remains precarious.

Children of color have a higher likelihood of adverse childhood experiences, which can shape the known social determinants of their mental health throughout their entire lives. Children of color are disproportionately exposed to adverse factors, such as stress, intergenerational trauma, violence, pollution, or housing insecurity compared to their white counterparts. One in two Black and Latino children, compared with one in 509 white children, live in low child opportunity areas, which are more likely to produce poor educational, employment, and health outcomes. Furthermore, many children of color who display troublesome or aggressive behaviors are referred to juvenile justice systems rather than referral to proper mental health care. These setbacks for young children of color can create long-lasting damaging consequences for their mental health and their futures alike.

Disparities in quality and access to health care, as well as bias on both system-wide and provider levels, also drive mental health disparities among children of color. Even when they are able to access care, Black and Latino children suffer because of significant diagnostic inequities within the health system. Multiple studies have documented that white children have significantly higher psychopharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatment rates compared to children of color. For example, Black and Latino children are less likely to take prescription medicines for ADHD than white children, which can severely impede their ability to succeed in the classroom and hinder the development of critical neurological capacities.[1] It is vital that Congress takes steps to increase cultural competency among medical providers so that children can receive the appropriate preventative care before it is too late.

The problems that children of color experience with untreated mental health issues extend into adulthood and often worsen the longer they go untreated. Among Black Americans, there is an alarming gap between the incidence of mental health problems and the willingness to seek treatment for them. Only 1 in 3 Black Americans who could benefit from mental health treatment receive it. Black adults are 20% more likely to experience mental health issues such as Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder than the rest of the population. Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security.[2] It is exceedingly clear that the mental health emergency is an epidemic of racial and economic justice, and it is long past time to sound the alarm to combat these dual crises.

My mission as a Member of Congress is to break the stigma and the deafening silence surrounding mental health treatment. We need to change our approach to mental illness and prioritize care and compassion for our vulnerable youth. I’m honored to work together to change the narrative around mental health and make mental health care not a sign of weakness, but an act of strength.

 

[1] Morgan, P. L., Staff, J., Hillemeier, M. M., Farkas, G., & Maczuga, S. (2013, July). Racial and ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis from kindergarten to eighth grade. Pediatrics. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3691530/

[2] Vance, T. (2019, February 8). Addressing mental health in the Black Community. Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/addressing-mental-health-black-community#:~:text=Research%20Surrounding%20the%20Black%20Community,Disorder%20or%20Generalized%20Anxiety%20Disorder