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Federal Communications Commission and Media Must Combat Black Mental Health Crisis

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman from the webcast

July 13, 2020 — Recent data from a survey launched by the federal government, originally intended to trace the effects of the coronavirus, has revealed that anxiety and depression rates among Black Americans have spiked disproportionately in the weeks following the widely-circulated video of George Floyd’s death.

The proportion of Black Americans battling anxiety and depression has risen from 36 percent to 41 percent, an increase amounting to roughly 1.4 million individuals.

Demonstrations and civic unrest, as well as the ongoing pandemic’s disproportionate toll on minority communities, have exacerbated existing disparities in mental health, as rates of anxiety and depression have remained relatively stable among white Americans.

In a virtual event on Monday, entitled “Thriving While Black: The Role of Media and Communications Technology in Addressing Black Mental Health,” panelists called attention to the growing Black mental health crisis in America.

Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks opened the event, speaking of the trauma shared by members of the Black American community and describing common “emotions of fear, frustration, and most of all, hope.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, noted that the task at hand is a challenging one because “mental health in general has had a stigma in our communities.”

This stigma is one that the panelists are working diligently to overcome.

As the FCC is set to vote on finalizing a three-digit National Suicide Hotline on Thursday, it is clear that there is a distinct for the agency to play in conversations regarding universal access and content creation, panelists said.

Communities that lack access to electronic devices and broadband connections lack the resources necessary for critical mental telehealth services.

Panelists noted that minority groups are disproportionately vulnerable to both mental health conditions and internet inequality.

The telecommunications sector is uniquely situated to not only connect Black Americans to vital health resources, but also to educate the masses about Black experiences.

Screenshot of Nicol Turner-Lee, director of the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution

Constant exposure to images of Black individuals being harassed and murdered can cause great trauma for Black Americans, said Nicol Turner-Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

Media lacks images of Black men and women simply existing, she said.

As individuals look to media to make sense of the world around them, Noopur Agarwal, vice president of social impact at ViacomCBS, argued that media and entertainment companies have crucial roles in providing diverse representations and working to destigmatize mental health in Black communities.

She detailed the effects of one scene from a popular VH1 series, which follows the journey of a predominantly Black cast.

In the episode, a cast member opens up to his loved ones about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. His friends and family rally around him, offering their support. The character goes on to seek professional help.

This kind of representation has positive effects, Agarwal said.

“It helped normalize the experience of depression and it showed viewers dealing with mental health that they are not alone,” she explained.

The night the episode aired, it inspired 20,000 people to immediately seek help, she said.

“Social media posts related to the story generated 5 million video views and 200,000 engagements outpouring support,” said Agarwal, adding that this is just one example of the powerful impact entertainment media can have in formulating ideology.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, attributed increasing depression and suicide rates among Black LGBTQ+ youth to a lack of representation, stating that “young people rely upon seeing reflections of themselves through media.”

“What we know about Black LGBTQ+ youth in particular is that 70 percent have reported having depression in the last 12 months, 35 percent have considered suicide, and 19 percent reported having attempted suicide in the past year,” he said.

Screenshot of David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition

A further explanation for these statistics is that mental health care providers aren’t trained to respond to intersectional trauma, Johns added.

Yet another contributing factor is the criminalization of Black youth, said Michael Lindsey, executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

“Often Black children are suspended from school because of behavior that is addressable through mental health treatment,” he said.

Lindsey referenced the “push-out phenomena,” or how young Black girls are disproportionately expelled from schools due to their behavior being perceived as more aggressive and defiant than similar actions from their white counterparts, resulting from ingrained racist prejudices.

Lindsey found that in lieu of being treated for mental health concerns, Black children are often disproportionately suspended, which only exacerbates existing conditions.

The number of mental health providers in schools should be proportionate to the number of students, he suggested.

“It is often the case that in communities of color [that] there is not an available mental health professional,” he said.

In conclusion, Turner-Lee called for panelists to utilize social media in order to “have conversations with people that would not typically come to these tables.”

Starks pledged to continue fighting to expand the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which works to subsidize phones for low income individuals, and could potentially help many Black Americans access mental health resources.

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