Deep Dives

SEL and Black Youth Mental Health

February 27, 2024
Paul C. Harris, Ph.D., NCC, NCSC
Renae D. Mayes, Ph.D., NCC
SEL and Black Youth Mental Health

A special thank you to our collaborators for their contributions to this blog post: Lauren C. Mims, Ph.D., and doctoral students Katie Mitchell-Dodge and Mandy K. Dhahan. 

Over the course of our careers in education, we’ve seen how critical social and emotional learning (SEL) is to the prevention of mental health issues among youth. Social and emotional skills and competencies form the foundation of mental well-being and health. Specifically, individual skill development combined with supportive relationships increases the likelihood of healthy coping patterns with adverse environmental conditions. While SEL is not therapy and does not replace mental health interventions for students who need it, it cultivates “protective factors”—social and emotional skills, caring relationships, and supportive environments—that buffer against mental health risks.

As a participant in CASEL’s Leading Schoolwide SEL workshop, one of us (Paul) had a chance to dig deeper into how SEL programming can lead to more safe and caring school climates, contributing to the overall well-being of all students. We explored the 10 indicators of SEL that, when present, foster connection, belonging, and a safe place for students to learn. 

This support is particularly important for Black students. Over the last several years, data has indicated that Black youth in particular are at an increased risk for suicidal ideation, attempts, and death by suicide (Congressional Black Caucus [CBC], 2020). Death by suicide is the highest among Black children ages 5 to 11 and has become the second leading cause of death among Black youth aged 10 to 14; it’s also the third leading cause of death among Black youth aged 15 to 19 (CBC, 2020). In addition to increased suicide risk, Black youth are experiencing increases in depressive episodes, substance use, and serious mental illness ​(Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021, n.d.).

Richmond Public Schools (RPS)

Recently, we had a chance to bring this information to bear in Richmond Public Schools (RPS) as part of a grant to help support mental health of Black youth.  RPS and the greater Richmond community in Virginia is a microcosm of all the national trends described earlier. For example, in the 2020-2021 school year, there were 150 suicide-risk assessments within RPS. The following school year (2021-2022), 197 suicide-risk assessments were already completed at the midpoint of the school year. 

Despite RPS’ active and meaningful efforts, the district continues to contend with community events such as youth-involved shootings and gun violence, which increase students’ exposure to violence and trauma, contributing to mental distress in students and adults. Because of increases in suicidality, trauma exposure, and mental health risks, RPS often ends up focusing more on responsive/crisis services and less on preventative services as part of their multi-tiered systems of support framework. 

Thankfully, the Office of Health and Human Services recognized both the need and potential within RPS to develop a more robust mental health policy, awarding a $1.1 million grant over three years to support Black youth mental health services. As part of this grant, we had the opportunity to work with a team of researchers/practitioners from the University of Arizona, New York University, and private industry to detail three phases for utilizing SEL strategies to achieve environments that lead to better mental health outcomes for adults and students.

The grant’s leadership team first identified partners from the local educational, business, and faith community to serve on an advisory council to assist with grant activity. This advisory council developed a comprehensive vision of Black youth thriving in RPS to help guide district-level policy review and recommendations related to Black youth mental health. The policy review and recommendations not only pertain to policies concerning mental health (i.e., suicide prevention, required staff training on mental health, etc.), but also mental health-related policies (i.e., discipline/restorative justice, students’ rights and responsibilities).

As mental health and related policies are addressed, practices should follow. Mayes et al.  recommends ensuring that SEL is cultivated in collaboration with students and families in culturally responsive ways. Mayes and Byrd assert that such work must first recognize how systems and structures in schools may work counter to the goals and aims of SEL, and how such harmful infrastructure needs to be dismantled in favor of those that protect the humanity of all students and their families. Moreover, assessing school context and climate are important as SEL cannot be a one-size fit all approach, but should be developed in the unique context and unique needs of each school.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Paul C. Harris is the founder and lead consultant for Integrity Matters, LLC, a training firm that exists to build a just world. He holds a B.S.Ed. in Health & Physical Education with a concentration in Sports Medicine and an M.Ed. in School Counseling from the University of Virginia, as well as a Ph.D. in counselor education from the University of Maryland and a master of divinity degree from Virginia Union University. He has served as a high school counselor, taught at universities, published peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, held elected state and national leadership positions in education organizations, and founded and pastored a nondenominational worship community. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three children.

Renae D. Mayes is an associate professor in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona. She completed her Ph.D. in Counselor Education at The Ohio State University where she was a Todd Anthony Bell Fellow. Dr. Mayes also completed degrees at the University of Maryland, College Park (M.Ed. in School Counseling) and University of Missouri (B.S. in Middle School Math and Social Studies Education) where she was a McNair Scholar.

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