COVID-19 and Racism: A Call for Stronger Mental Health Support for Youth of Color

Emilie Stewart, MSEd, MSW,
An image of a young Black woman with a face mask and backpack.

Protesters across the United States have proclaimed that we are facing two deadly pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. There is no questioning that COVID-19, and corresponding “stay at home” orders, have completely altered many people’s daily routines. As a society, we have struggled to adapt to a seemingly impossible way of life. The collective trauma we have experienced during this pandemic will have resounding effects on people throughout the country, and across the globe.  Although systemic racism’s insidious influence extends well beyond the realm of COVID-19, the disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States reinforces the multitude of ways that racism manifests itself, perpetrating and perpetuating harm.

The racialized impact of COVID-19 has been acutely felt by youth with experience in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx. The intersections of racism, lived experiences in the foster care and/or juvenile justice system, and the coronavirus pandemic has made young people especially susceptible to the impact of COVID-19 and stay at home orders. Stay at home orders have disrupted youth’s education, led to termination of their employment, or reduced their job prospects. The ramifications of these orders have resulted  in housing and food insecurity coupled with heightened experiences of anxiety and depression. Although many states are beginning the process of reopening, the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s physical and emotional well-being will linger.

As a Temporary Associate with the Youth Advocacy Program at Juvenile Law Center, one of my central roles is to complete regular check-ins with youth to see how they are and to offer individualized support. Check-ins happen on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, depending on the degree of support needed by the youth. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, check-ins were held in person in the office. During this time of remote work, we adapted by hosting check-ins via phone or Zoom call (in between formal check-ins I communicate with many youth through text message). To adapt to the needs of the new virtual world and the harrowing effects of COVID-19, racism, and limited resources on youth with system involvement, and other needs, check-ins began to go beyond just discussing current emotional state and well-being. Check-ins frequently focus on accessing necessary resources: identifying and applying for health insurance, applying for housing programs or securing emergency housing, applying for additional financial support such as TANF or SSI, navigating educational challenges, identifying employment opportunities and preparing for interviews, following up with DHS caseworkers or attorneys who youth have not been able to reach, and, most frequently, connecting with mental health supports.  Check-ins frequently concentrate on mental health support because youth with previous foster care or juvenile justice system experience confront numerous structural barriers to access and continuity of mental health care, even without the added burden of a global health crisis.

The necessity of accessible, trauma-informed and culturally responsive mental health support for youth is more urgent now than ever before. COVID-19 has not only exacerbated structural barriers to mental health resources, but is also the underlying cause of escalated experiences of anxiety and depression. Over the past few months, the consequences of the interwoven nature of racism and COVID-19 have become glaringly apparent. The transition to online education was challenging because of unstable or nonexistent Wi-Fi connectivity, or lack of access to a computer or tablet to complete assignments. Some youth also struggled with the removal of the social connectivity offered through school and the inability to engage with teachers and professors around academic questions in person. Overall, lack of transparent communication between the public school system and youth made remote learning procedures and expectations for the remainder of the school year unclear. COVID-19 prevented other young people  from signing up for GED or continuing education programs as they had previously planned. Similarly, the efforts of youth hoping to re-enroll in school or change schools were thwarted because the offices providing the necessary paperwork and approval were closed. The onset of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders prompted a sudden loss of employment that profoundly impacted youths’ sense of physical safety. Several of our youth advocates experienced loss of work, or a decrease in hours, which they relied upon for food and housing security during this time.

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 landscape coupled with the stress of unemployment and limited access to mental health resources has heightened experiences of anxiety and depression as youth are confined to their homes. As the structure of day-to-day life morphed into something almost unrecognizable, several young people reported feeling greater anxiety and or depression than they ever have. The very resources they needed access to, such as trusted mentors, enrichment programming and therapeutic services, were unavailable for the same reasons they were needed — the pandemic.       

Compounding the factors explored above is what protesters have described as the “second pandemic”: racism. Throughout quarantine, the portrayal and discussion of violence rendered against Black people has been inescapable as racial violence took place, including the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Robert Fuller, and countless others. The constant depictions of violence inflicted against Black people across the United States (especially through the sharing of viral videos) can be re-traumatizing and triggering for many youth who already experience racism every day. Youth and families need a much more targeted approach to address mental health needs, and the direct and indirect implications of continued implicit and explicit racism on Black people. In Philadelphia, mental health providers could begin to develop culturally competent targeted therapy for youth who identify as Black to address their emotional needs and the impact of seeing and experiencing racial discrimination. No matter what experiences influence a young person’s trauma — witnessing racial violence, experiencing racism, the COVID-19 crisis, or previous life experiences — the takeaway should be resoundingly clear: moving forward, proactive measures will need to be taken to ensure that youth have sustained access to the mental health supports that they need to process, heal and flourish.