Boston Medical Center researchers report a surge in depression and anxiety among children of color

Anxiety and depression. (Photo by Joice Kelly/Unsplash)

By Duojiao Chang 
Boston University News Service 

There was a surge in depression, anxiety, and social risks among children of color aged 5 to 11 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recently released study led by researchers with the Boston University School of Medicine/Boston Medical Center.

In “Changes in psychosocial functioning among urban, school‑age children during the COVID‑19 pandemic,” researchers found the rates of depression and anxiety among children of color aged from 5 to 11 spiked from 5% to 18% during the pandemic. The study, published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, is one of the first to quantify the psychosocial impacts of COVID-19 among children of color using data collected before and during the pandemic, according to an article in Health City, an online publication run by BMC. 

“We found that parents’ ratings of mental health problems [among children] increased significantly during the pandemic. And in particular, we saw internalizing problems in children increased,” said Rachel Oblath, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher at BMC’s department of psychiatry. 

Oblath said poor mental health among children was related to social risks examined in the study. Half of the parents reported food insecurity during the pandemic, compared to 16% before the health crisis. The study also shows an increase in children’s externalizing problems, including disruptive behaviors and physical aggression.

The study collected data from 168 child givers, the majority identifying as Black and Hispanic. About a quarter were non-English speakers. 

“When we talk about mental health and suicide prevention, it’s always seen as a white issue,” said Brandy Brooks, the executive director at DeeDee’s Cry, an organization advocating for suicide prevention and mental health awareness within communities of color. 

Brooks worked for more than fifteen years within the youth and violence prevention division at the department of public health. 

DeeDee’s Cry Executive Director Toy Burton said funding is the major challenge for her organization and other grassroots groups advocating for mental health among racial minorities. 

“Because all the services that we give are free […] we need funding to pay for getting our message out,” Burton said. 

Mental health among children of color had been a long-lasting concern before the pandemic. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics by the American Medical Association in 2018 indicated African American children aged from 5 to 12 had a significantly higher incidence of suicide than white children. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data also highlighted disproportionately poor mental health outcomes experienced by black and brown communities during the pandemic. 

“I think what the pandemic did was in some respects heightened disparities that already existed,” said Brooks. 

Brooks also said that the government should play a key role in funding allocation and legislation. 

There are gaping holes in the state’s mental health infrastructure that must be remedied, Gov. Charlie Baker said during his final State of the Commonwealth address last month. He pushed for mental health reform as one of his priorities for the remainder of the legislative session. 

The Massachusetts Senate approved a sweeping bill last year that would guarantee annual mental health wellness exams for Massachusetts residents at no cost. 

Burton said the negative effects of COVID-19 on children’s mental health are likely to persist.

The research team at BMC is pulling together another paper with longitudinal data on children’s mental health and social risks collected at two subsequent time points during the pandemic. 

“We’re looking at whether children’s mental health started returning to normal during the pandemic or potentially got worse or plateaued after the rise in symptoms,” said Oblath. “And we are looking at whether or not things like remote schooling, hybrid schooling, and in-person schooling were associated with changes in mental health across the pandemic.”

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