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Lack Of Mental Health Services In Predominantly Black Schools Creates Detrimental ‘Domino Effect’

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For many black school-age youth, mental health needs can fly under the radar. They can lead some parents, teachers and other adults to perceive it as kids “acting out.” St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Dr. Marva Robinson, a licensed clinical psychologist in St. Louis about what happens when mental health resources aren’t available in predominantly black schools.

"Permanent domino effect"

That can lead to a “permanent domino effect.” Often times, Robinson said, when children in need don’t have access to resources or trained professionals that will recognize the signs, the problem will go untreated. As a result, it can lead to more problems later in life.

“They usually end up in punitive systems — suspensions, detentions, kicked out of school, expelled or placed in alternative schools,” Robinson said. “And so that leads to a very negative trajectory from that point forward. So higher dropout rates, lower paying jobs, more likely to end up in the criminal system and it just goes on from there.”

The trajectory for black youth versus their peers

For African American children, Robinson said the old saying “kids will be kids” does not apply. Research shows that black youth are more likely to be dehumanized and estimated to be three years older than their given age, according to Robinson.

“So the trickle-down effect starts from that beginning,” Robinson said. “Not seeing the childhood or the child like features in them. So dropping a pencil is seen as doing it on purpose and being malicious, or a child having tantrums is not being seen as maybe depressed, but just acting out for no reason or attention seeking. And so, it's that initial stage where they're told that their symptoms aren't clinical symptoms, but bad behaviors."

On how many counselors need to be in schools

Robinson said counselors wear multiple hats. If counselors were able to focus primarily on counseling, it would help address the problem. The bigger challenge is identifying the students who might have mental health needs. However, teachers who interact with students more often are also likely to miss the signs. Robinson said teachers are given too many tasks to juggle.

"They're focused on things like children having school supplies, teaching the lesson, breaking up any disputes and conflicts,” Robinson said. “And now we want to add to their plate acknowledging mental health issues. So we definitely over stress and overwhelm our teachers. I think the best approach would be to have individuals that are trained and are culturally competent to recognize mental health issues in the black community. In the classrooms to do some observations or if there was some standardized initial testing that was offered for all students, so that these things can be caught and tracked at earlier stages, versus relying on a teacher who has 19 or 20 other students to be able to pick up on something that's outside of their scope of practice."

What if mental health issues were caught earlier?

Robinson said if mental health needs were addressed when black youth are in grade school, there would be fewer negative consequences down the road.

"We could lower the crime rate,” Robinson said. “We would definitely lower the prison rate. We would dismantle the pipeline to prison theory, because if we were able to treat children as individuals who have a mental illness and give them the treatment that they need, then we wouldn't label them as criminals where they end up in the criminal system."

On the mental health divide within St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis

Across the board Missouri could use some improvement when it comes to targeting mental health issues within the black community, Robinson said. While both the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have a Children's Services Fund that taxpayers pay into, Robinson said many families aren't aware the resources that are available to them. 

“The biggest problem is families being aware of these resources and then also knowing how to access them," Robinson said. "So I meet...parents who I'm telling about this Children's Services Fund, where they can get in home counseling, in home therapy or full psychological evaluation, and they never knew it existed and they're paying into this."

Correction: There is a Children's Services Fund in the City of St. Louis. St. Louis Public Radio had previously reported that there wasn't a fund in the City of St. Louis. 

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @marissanne2011

This story originally appeared on St. Louis Public Radio.