Jharrel Jerome recently earned an Emmy award for his outstanding portrayal of Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay's Netflix series “When They See Us.” Thirty years ago, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman. All five Black and Latino teenagers unnecessarily served years of imprisonment until their convictions were vacated by DNA evidence in 2002. Their case's renewed attention is exposing the mental health epidemic affecting people of color: racial trauma.
Racial trauma is defined as the race-based stress and reactions of people of color to real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination such as: police brutality, racial profiling, and racially-motivated hate crimes. Unlike other forms of stress, racial trauma involves continual individual and group suffering due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress. For instance, witnessing racial violence on social media can trigger this stress for people of color and their symptoms can mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The consequences of racial trauma are extensive. In many cases, the symptoms of trauma children of color exhibit can be misdiagnosed as a behavior disorder such as ADHD or penalized as misconduct. These symptoms include difficulty trusting teachers and emotional instability. In other words, the mental health of boys of color is regularly ignored or mistreated. This is especially alarming because the suicide rate for Black children between the ages of five and twelve is double that of their white counterparts. Neglecting the mental health of these boys makes them vulnerable to living with a mental illness as adults. For instance, exposure to traumatic experiences increases the likelihood of developing a mental health condition such as: depression, anxiety or a personality disorder. For instance, Black men are roughly six times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than white men. As a whole, over 6.8 million Black people living in America had a diagnosable mental illness in 2018.
Mental health is a social justice issue. Accordingly, mental health experiences are compounded by financial barriers, lack of access to education and racial injustice. Despite the widespread need for mental health attention, up to 74% of Black men exposed to traumatic events have an unfulfilled need for mental health services. Additionally, Black people are less likely than white people to trust psychiatrists or to be covered by mental health services.
The unjust reality is that millions of Americans of color are coping with the criminalization of mental health; prisoners are five times more likely to have a serious mental illness than the general population. Additionally, many Black people receive mental health care for the first time while incarcerated. In fact, America's largest mental health facility is the Los Angeles County Jail. Unsurprisingly, prison mental health care is inadequate and has only exacerbated suicide rates. The good news is that intervention can and is taking place to properly serve the mental health needs of young boys and men of color.