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Children’s Day 2020: Disparities among children of color

November 19, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

The effects of racism and social inequality don’t stop at adults. On Children’s Day 2020, learn why they’re extremely intertwined with the mental health of children of color.

Since they expose children to discrimination and hamper a family’s ability to adequately support their children, they are “really intertwined with a child’s mental health,” said Dr. Tania Maria Caballero, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“In the setting of the pandemic, those pieces of the family roots are really affected,” Caballero said.

“His imprisonment mainly affected me because I couldn’t get to know him, so it was harder to get to know myself,” Maxwell, who is Black, Mexican and Samoan and from San Jose, California, said via email.

“Mass incarceration has effects (on) individuals, families, and communities,” said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a pediatrician and researcher at Ann & Robert H.

Mental health status varies across children from the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes — but historical trauma and cultural loss “seem to have varying impacts across generations,” said Melissa Walls, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Great Lakes Hub for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

When family roots that are nurtured by values, experiences, history and culture that keep families strong, proud and resilient are put “into a soil that has elements of discrimination (and) systemic racism,” Caballero said, a child’s prospective success can be dashed.

“We say children are resilient,” Caballero said — but for that characteristic to develop, those fundamental protective factors need to be there.

Chronic stress can lead to “increased and prolonged levels of exposure to stress hormones and oxidative stress at the cellular level,” said an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on the impact of racism on youth.

When a child is labeled “aggressive” or “a problem,” that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that contributes to both delays in learning and cognitive diagnoses and adverse mental health outcomes.

“The labels that children receive in childhood stick with them and can be internalized,” said Nevin J.

“I feel like that’s a time in a girl’s life, and honestly, any child’s life, where they need both of their parents to show them how they deserve to be loved,” Henriquez said.

“I’m 21 years old,” said Henriquez, who stays in touch with her father via Skype occasionally.

“You may have a child from the Dominican Republic, who (attended) a school with all other Black children who all speak Spanish, (come) into a US school, and they are labeled Black when they identify as Hispanic because they speak Spanish,” Caballero said.

Ethnic identity and pride have really positive effects on the mental health of children, whereas being redefined in other people’s terms can stress the child — leading to isolation, duality of identity and search for their place in new settings.

It “makes them question their safety in the society of other adults who treat their parents in a poor manner,” Caballero said.

And if parents were traumatized during their migration process, their children might face the repercussions, Caballero said: Without support, parents may not be able to process their trauma in a way that leaves them able to lovingly, positively and consistently parent.

Despite the fact that Middle Eastern and Arab people in the United States have faced “adversities such as hate crimes, stigma, and harmful social policies, particularly since 9/11,” studies on the impact on children’s mental health are lacking, said Maryam Kia-Keating, a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, via email.

Erasure from the US Census, discrimination and hate crimes faced by Middle Eastern and Arab people have led to adverse childhood experiences; negative, long-term impacts on mental health; and insufficient mental health services for these groups, Kia-Keating said.

“The anger from hearing those kinds of comments and that anxiety around the impact of those hurtful comments but also anxiety about, potentially, some of those comments becoming physical, are cause for anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Tina Cheng, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and its director.

Though the onus for change is on societal institutions, there are ways parents can support children if racism or social disadvantages are harming their mental health.

When another family is involved, talk to your child’s school about the appropriate way to handle racial discrimination and chip away at the larger structural problems that led to the incident, Caballero said.

Exposing kids to dolls, characters and writers of color who reflect their appearance, experiences and culture “can be very powerful (and) a barrier against the long-term impact of racism and discrimination,” Caballero said.

Identifying and treating mental health issues in all children early on is important so they can get accustomed to treatment plans while their brains are still adaptable and plastic, Caballero said.

“We know that societies and communities function more strongly and better the more diverse we are,” Caballero said.

Parents should “seek out the mental health care and treatment their children and teens need,” Heard-Garris said.

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