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Following A Year Of Coronavirus And Police Violence, Unmet Mental Health Needs Among Black Coloradans Persist

Denver resident Dane Washington wants people to take the mental health of young Black men seriously.
Chris Rollerson
Denver resident Dane Washington wants people to take the mental health of young Black men seriously.

Over the past year, Black Americans have been processing the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, high-profile police violence and, on Tuesday, a guilty verdict against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The cumulative mental health strain over the last year has been significant, but in many communities, mental health services continue to lag behind the need.

In a survey published by the Colorado Health Foundation last year, Black adult Coloradans reported a variety of struggles: feeling more concerned about the coronavirus than whites, experiencing greater financial insecurity and being more likely to fear the police. Since then, police shootings have continued; earlier this week, a 16-year old girl was killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio just minutes before the verdict was delivered in the Derek Chauvin case.

“It's not taken seriously enough that these kids and Black people in general have to just continuously act like, you know, this stuff isn't happening in our streets every day,” said Dane Washington, a 21-year-old violence prevention activist and youth mentor at a Denver elementary school. “Speaking from a perspective of a young Black man, it's hard to just continue to act like these things don't exist.”

Washington sees Black kids dealing with all sorts of challenges: difficult home lives, a lack of resources, being scared of the police, and community gun violence. When he was a kid, Washington would sometimes hear gunshots during football practice. In the 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 32% of Black students said they had felt extremely sad or hopeless for at least two weeks over the past year.

“We see that it's happening, but we're supposed to just continue to go to work, continue to go to school, continue to just function every day, knowing that these are the dangers that we face everyday just by who we are,” Washington said. “And when some of these kids, you have these conversations with them and start to hear their stories, like it doesn't get easier for them either.”

Protesters confront police with chants of 'hands up, don't shoot' near the Denver Police Administration building last summer.
Adam Rayes
Protesters confront police with chants of 'hands up, don't shoot' near the Denver Police Administration building last summer.

Every year, hundreds of young people in Denver are involved in gun crimes, as suspects and victims. In 2020, gun violence overall surged in the city; nine kids were shot and killed. Law enforcement violence persists too. During the summer protests, Denver police repeatedly used significant force like rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators. In Aurora, after a young Black man named Elijah McClain died in police custody in 2019, several investigations are ongoing.

“When we're talking about trauma, we have to first label racial trauma as a type of trauma and recognize that all types of trauma do affect the brain,” Dr. Apryl Alexander, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, said. “Making you hyper-vigilant, making you more fearful, making you more resistant to wanting to interact with people of authority. All of these symptoms that we see with other forms of trauma, we see with racial trauma.”

Alexander, who is also the first chair of the Racial Justice Task Force for the Colorado Psychological Association, sees anxiety, depression, PTSD, nightmares and trouble sleeping as effects of racial trauma.

Dr. Apryl Alexander is the first chair of the Racial Justice Task Force for the Colorado Psychological Association.
Jenna Sparks
Dr. Apryl Alexander is the first chair of the Racial Justice Task Force for the Colorado Psychological Association.

Barriers to care

But obstacles to connecting people with needed care exist. In addition to what Alexander refers to as “psychosocial barriers” — the idea that Black men are expected to be tough and hypermasculine — care is not always affordable, well-located or available.

“I think the biggest thing is like having people within our community who want to work with us...but who also look like us and who we can relate to people who are from the community,” Washington said. “I think that's really the biggest thing.

Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies does not track the race of the therapists and psychiatrists it licenses, but nationally, according to the most recent survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), in 2016, only 4% of licensed psychologists were Black and the need is going up. The APA projects that the demand for psychologists among Black Americans will increase much more than for the general population by the year 2030.

'The message is trying to get out there'

During the pandemic, the increase in telehealth has allowed mental health services to reach a greater variety of people. Meanwhile, Dr. Alexander has been compiling a list of providers of color. But she has observed a shift that began before the pandemic: young people seeking care, particularly in school, and becoming more comfortable talking about it.

“Also with social media, all sorts of podcasts out there,” Alexander said. “One that I listen to pretty regularly is Therapy for Black Girls. They have a website where you can look for Black mental health providers throughout the country. Black Men Heal is another organization that is trying to do the same thing. So I think the message is trying to get out there.”

In his work on youth violence prevention, Dane Washington is helping to open a city-sponsored Youth Empowerment Center in southwest Denver. When the center opens, likely early next year, it will offer behavioral and mental health services along with other types of programming.

“But also having programs in our community. I think one of the biggest things that you can implement into kids’ lives that can help with mental health is encouraging them to get into some type of extracurricular like sports,” Washington said. “And not just caring about the sports aspect, but looking at a more holistic view. Like what supports do they need at home? How can we support the families? How can the community support these kids in education?”

The Park Hill Pirates, a local youth football team, also runs a literacy program, for example.

Washington says having a variety of safe spaces for Black youth to process stressful events is important, like the verdict in George Floyd’s murder, which he expects will come up this week in school.

“I think for the most part, when the kids react to it, they'll be really happy about it, but also being very honest in letting them know that this is a very small step,” Washington said.

These are difficult topics but students he says the students he mentors are resilient:

“That’s one thing about working with kids is that throughout all of the negative things or the sad feelings and stuff like that sometimes you have moments where kids just say enlightening things like how much they wish the world was better and the things that they would want to see in the world.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.