Shame worsens One way to allow mental illness to grow worse is to cloak it in shame and denial. The 2008 Roots of Youth Violence report co-chaired by former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry and former Speaker of the Ontario Legislature Alvin Curling refers to mental illness as a factor that contributes to anti-social and sometimes criminal youth activity but it is a very broad and relatively brief reference, likely because it would take a completely separate study to adequately discuss this.
There are descriptions in the mental illness lexicon, such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that send a chill through the Black community generally.
But the one that is least talked about is depression. Depression has a spectrum from mild to severe and even within that spectrum there are dimensions. There is depression that, especially in the Black community, can be described as situational depression.
Across the general population depression is more common in women than in men, but among the Black population, depression is three to four times higher among men than women, among boys than girls.
It doesn’t take much to understand why that is the case: Black males are among the most oppressed sub-groups across North American society. Their rate of incarceration in Canada is second only to incarceration for Aboriginal males, relative to the size of the overall population. Statistics from Ontario’s Ministry Children and Youth Services and from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services show that while young Black males – those between the ages of 12 and 17 – constitute five per cent of male youth in the province, they make up 24 per cent of those sent to jail.
The factors that contribute to situational depression are the same ones that young people living in high-risk neighbourhoods face: poverty, especially racialized poverty, lack of opportunity, disenfranchisement, police harassment, racial discrimination, generalized suspicion directed at them, repeated exposure to violence. These trauma stressors parallel with living in a war zone where the outcome can be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Add to this, low expectations from teachers at school, or teachers who seem not to care at all, teachers who show a racial bias, who completely ignore cultural and racial sensitivities.
How does a young person living with depression or PTSD present? Depression does not only appear as sadness so expressions of sudden anger or aggression can be misinterpreted. In fact, these are defense mechanisms.
That label of impulsivity that is often attached to the rash and at times violent reactions of youth is also a symptom of untreated depression.
Another symptom is low motivation. If you have a youth who, as the saying goes, has the brains but is not doing the work, to label that person as lazy would be to head in the wrong direction. He or she could be exhibiting yet another symptom of depression.
Other symptoms include chronic irritability and moodiness, insomnia or, conversely, sleeping too much, also severe weight loss or weight gain. These are by no means all the symptoms, just some of the most detectable.
The crisis of youth acting out is not one merely of individuals; it is pandemic. What is urgently needed is a more enlightened grasp of mental illness among Black communities. We need to call it what it is. We need to stop seeing ‘bad’ kids and instead understand we have a crisis of kids living with untreated depression. The justice system needs to also recognize this reality.
We need to acknowledge that there is a culture of shame attached to mental illness. We need to defeat the shame and get on with the strategies that will help our children to heal. We need to be aware also, even as we address this matter, that care must be taken to protect Black youth from aggressive psychiatric diagnoses that can do more harm than good.
There are no easy solutions here, which is even more reason we have to get on with the challenges of the treatment and healing process.