Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When the District shut down last year, Black and Latina teens in D.C. had to step up as caregivers to younger siblings and family members. A seventh grade girl confided in staff at the nonprofit Crittenton Services of Greater Washington that she was taking care of four children at home, one of them an infant, while doing distance learning. A high school senior who had been caring for a sick elderly grandfather witnessed him die while she was taking care of him.

“That’s a lot of stress on our young girls at a time in their lives where children should just be children,” says Siobhan Davenport, CEO of CSGW and an author who writes about equity issues affecting girls and women of color.

On this last day of Suicide Awareness Month, it’s time to reckon with the intersections of race and gender that impact the mental health of Black and Latina girls in the District. Suspected suicide attempts by girls aged 12 to 17 increased by more than 50 percent in February to March 2021 compared to the same time in 2019 and surged by varying degrees at other times throughout the pandemic, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that looked at emergency visits nationwide. By contrast, suspected suicide attempts that led to ER visits among boys in the same age group increased by only 3.7 percent compared to the same period two years ago. ​​Race compounds the gender disparity in suicide attempts and suicides that researchers have seen as a silent pandemic. While the number of suicide attempts among White adolescents nationwide dropped from 1991 to 2017, the number of Black children attempting suicide increased. Suicide death rates among Black girls in the U.S. aged 13 to 19 rose by 182 percent from 2001 to 2017.

Girls of color are more susceptible than their White peers to face adverse mental health effects from the stress of pandemic conditions in the home. They are more likely to lose a family member due to COVID-19: Black residents in the District and across the nation have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the virus, as have Latinx people, in ways that can’t be solely attributed to socioeconomic status or underlying health conditions. They are also more likely to get worn out and strain other aspects of their wellbeing due to caregiving responsibilities, the New York Times recently reported. A 2020 World Economic Forum report sheds light on how COVID further contributed to gender inequities in caregiving among women and girls

These COVID-era findings reflect more of what CSGW had found in their Declare Equity For Girls Report back in 2017. The nonprofit serves mostly young Black and Latina girls and their families, providing programs on life skills, healthy behaviors, and pregnancy prevention. CSGW had conducted focus groups with 71 Black and Latina girls from wards 5, 7, and 8, listening to these teens describe their experiences and expectations in and outside the home. Through listening sessions and surveys, together with national and global research on caregiving disparities, staff found that girls of color face more expectations for caregiving and other household duties than do both White girls and boys of color. Apart from suicidal ideation, staff found that 63 percent of girls in their program reported significant stress, 43 percent reported they are worried about their emotional health, and 50 percent reported feeling worried about their academic performance and the uncertainty of their future. 

Lessons from Crittenton on Helping Young Girls Manage their Mental Health

Davenport’s greatest hope is for greater mental health support that teens can access. 

“That everyone … who is in the ecosystem of our teen girls—be it your caregiver, your parents, our immediate family, your teachers, counselor, et cetera—that everyone creates that safe space,” she says.”So that they can … continue to thrive, knowing that they are being nurtured and cared for … being listened to.”

Davenport highlights a couple strategies that she as a mother and CSGW as a community have tried in order to support the mental health of young girls:

• Self-Care: Encouraging youth to identify and nurture their passions and hobbies. CSGW girls have taken up activities like cooking, arts and crafts painting, micro-entrepreneurship (developing lip glosses and body butters), and singing as ways to nurture themselves.

• Safe Community Involvement: A CSGW program leader facilitated an exercise where she invited her teens to make a Mother’s Day gift while socially distanced. “It was just a meaningful exercise to show the girls that regardless of how they’re feeling,” she says. “[Even though] we all can feel a bit helpless during these times, there are things that we can do to bring joy not just to ourselves, but to those around us.”

Boys Need Help, Too

While girls are disproportionately impacted by gender-based inequities that contribute to mental illness, boys also need support.

“As a community, we need to allow boys the safe space to share how they’re feeling during these times but also outside of these times,” Davenport says.

Davenport says she is always doing check-ins with her son. “There are times when I get one-word answers and then there’s times when he just opens up a floodgate. And I’ve learned to be patient either way,” she says. “So the one-word answer pretty much means that now it’s not a good time to talk. But he does get around to sharing with me how he’s feeling throughout all of this.”

While city officials seek to make schools as back to normal as possible amid a heightened outcry for greater COVID safety precautions from parents, teachers, and advocates, normalcy may not cut it for the other pandemic facing teens and girls of color. 

“Normal wasn’t always so good for everyone,” says Davenport of the mental health crisis. “And it certainly wasn’t always good for children and the teen girls that we serve from vulnerable backgrounds.” 

— Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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