For Black Youth, a Time of Upheaval Takes a Toll on Mental Health

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Ashley Otah, left, in Dallas; Cecil Hannibal in Los Angeles; Zane Keyes in Montclair, N.J.; and Visaysha Harris in Grayson, Ga.  (Illustration: STAT; photos courtesy of Ashley Otah, Cecil Hannibal, Gabrielle Glaser and Visaysha Harris)

From his room in Los Angeles, Cecil Hannibal worries about his grandmother getting COVID-19 every time she goes to the supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky. In northern Georgia, Visaysha Harris puts limits on her news consumption, to keep from “taking too much of it all in.” In Dallas, Ashley Otah makes sure to follow reminders on her mindfulness apps. In New Jersey, Zane Keyes unwinds by riding his bike. “Since George Floyd’s murder, I feel angry, frustrated, unheard,” he says.

These young people — three of them new college graduates — are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged during this moment of national upheaval. Most Americans report more anxiety and depression in response to the coronavirus pandemic — with nearly half of those ages 18 to 29 experiencing the highest rate of symptoms.

But as African Americans, these four are navigating far more than a disrupted senior year and a collapsed job market: COVID-19 hit their communities especially hard, and then that was compounded by seemingly limitless videos of police brutalizing people who look like them.

Black adults have been 10% to 26% more likely than white adults to report symptoms of psychological distress in a mental health survey conducted weekly since late April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census Bureau. In the week after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, 40.5% of black adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared with 33.1% of white people.


Yet historically, African Americans are half as likely to receive either treatment or medication for their mental health, according to federal statistics. They are more likely to be uninsured and are often overlooked in research studies of mental health. And since only a small fraction of therapists are black, many who are struggling emotionally may be reluctant to seek care.

There are also cultural barriers, including a stigma about mental health issues, Victor Armstrong, director of mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, told STAT.

“Rather than being able to express the pain, fear and anger, what we’re told when we’re young is that we should suck it up and be strong — our great-great grandparents survived slavery and our grandparents survived Jim Crow,” said Armstrong, a clinical social worker. “For those raised in the church, there is added pressure. We are told to look to God for strength rather than acknowledge we feel pain, hurt, and anger. Those messages have done a disservice to generations of black people.”

Otah, who just graduated from the University of Southern California, heard that message as she grew up. “Often black women will say, ‘I’m so tired.’ The comment just gets dismissed,” she said. “People are not taking into consideration that they are so tired because they are fighting a battle they shouldn’t have to be fighting. Black women are supposed to be strong. Black women are supposed to be fearless. We need a space where we can be open about our stories, our experiences.”

Jarell Myers, a psychologist at The Center for Motivation and Change in New York, said the trauma of racism passes from one generation to the next, leading to anxiety, depression, and PTSD that frequently goes undiagnosed and untreated. “Due to historical mistreatment of black people from the medical establishment, there is enormous mistrust toward it,” Myers said. “This results in the assumption that if you go to see a shrink, you’re crazy.”

Here, in their own words, is how Hannibal, Harris, Keyes, and Otah are trying to cope with the stresses of a daily life that is anything but normal. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Cecil Hannibal

Cecil Hannibal, 23, is a 2020 graduate of USC. A native of Atlanta, he lives in Los Angeles.

In January it felt like the world was my oyster. I was interviewing for jobs right before COVID took over the U.S. Then the job market collapsed and I thought, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” I have student debt, and I had a lot on my mind. My mom is a hairdresser in Atlanta who couldn’t work because of COVID. I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to find work either. I’m more hopeful now. I’ve had some good job interviews.

My grandmother in Louisville was active in the civil rights movement and lived through so much. As a kid, I couldn’t understand her fear. I used to walk to the CVS near her house to get candy and AriZona tea. When Trayvon Martin was murdered, suddenly it hit me. Here was someone just a few years older than me, who looked like me, who got shot walking home from the store with Skittles and AriZona tea. I was sure that George Zimmerman would go to jail — he had murdered a child. But he was acquitted. That’s when it clicked that my life as a Black man was going to be different.

I was told I had to be twice as good as my peers who were not black. And now that stands even for the way I dress. I don’t ever want to give anyone the reason that I’m not professional. I like wearing my hair, so if I’m going to wear my hair, I’m going to have a dress shirt and tie.

My heart is broken now, but I’m optimistic. The world is out there protesting. I hope people are starting to grasp what it’s like to have systematic racism rule your life. I hope people will turn out to vote for the biggest election of my lifetime.

Part of me wants to march, but my mom would have a heart attack. I’m being a social media activist. I want to be on the right side of this, but there are risks and I can’t put my family through that. If I get locked up, who’s going to bail me out? I don’t have family out here. I support the protests 100%, but I don’t feel comfortable going out and facing the police.

I come from a family that always looks on the bright side, that always says God will take care of us. But right now I feel a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of sadness for my community. We’ve had pain bottled up for so long, and it’s reached the surface.

Visaysha Harris

Visaysha Harris, 22, a 2020 graduate of Georgia State University, lives in Grayson, Georgia.

It was shocking to have to exit school, leave my apartment, and come back to my childhood bedroom to finish off my studies. I put the stuff from my college life in the garage. That part of my life was over.

It was a hard transition not to be able to hang out with my friends or see my boyfriend. I was missing out on the motivation I get from going to class and listening to a lecture. The professors were trying to navigate online learning just like we were. Some of my lessons were just PowerPoints you had to scroll through.

In the first month I definitely felt depressed. I was just staying in my room, staying in my little twin bed, trying to get used to what the world was like. It was hard to even open a textbook.

But I pushed through, finished my classes online, finished up my internship online, had my graduation online. My family celebrated with me and got me a cake. In March I accepted a job in ad sales at NBC Universal that starts in July, and I was going to move to New York. But I’m going to be doing that from here now. I know I’ll get there eventually. I’m skeptical about the medical establishment. I’m not necessarily trusting of a vaccine.

When it comes to the violence, I can tell you I’m so disappointed. But the sad part is, this is our history. It’s typical for black men and women to get killed by the police.

There’s only so much pain you can feel about it. I want justice but I have to separate this from my own mental health and making sure I’m not taking too much of it all in. It’s hard to see the portrayals of what’s going on. I wish people could look past the fact that your Target got broken into, or the mall got smashed up. That’s property that can be replaced. The lives of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor cannot be replaced.

Zane Keyes

Zane Keyes, 27, a 2016 graduate of Rutgers University, lives in Montclair, New Jersey. 

Earlier in the lockdown, I had an anxiety attack over finances. This last almost-year I made the most income that I’d ever made in my business as a barber, but I’ve got $40,000 in student debt. Then it took 62 days to get an unemployment check. I maxed out my credit card, and my mother was in a car accident.

I felt this weight on my chest. I found myself breathing as much as I could, but it didn’t change anything. So I had a telemedicine conference with a doctor. She told me to stop looking so much on social media, and to check in with my therapist. I’ve seen one before, a black man who helped me with cognitive behavioral techniques for anxiety and depression.

Since George Floyd’s murder, I feel angry, frustrated, unheard. I’m outraged that I have to speak until my lungs are sore and no matter how many times I try to verbalize it, white people try to tell me it’s not as bad as I think it is. You don’t know what it’s like to walk in my shoes. You’ve never been called the N-word with a hard e-r. My friends and I got harassed by the cops when we were 15 for taking alcohol to a house party. They put guns to the back of my friends’ heads and tried to make it look like we were drug dealers. You don’t forget that.

When white boys get pulled over, they shake and tremble because they’re scared of what it’s going to do to their finances. When we get pulled over, we shake and tremble because we’re scared for our lives. The fear we feel is from past trauma. The fear we feel is from our elders’ pain.

I marched at a peaceful protest in Newark. I was with a woman who was 80 years old, marching still. I was with a man who was 85 years old, marching still. It’s the same shit he was marching for when he was 17.

You think I want my future kids to have to grow up and do that one day, too? My godsons are 1 and 2. I’m full of fear, but I can’t be voiceless when they are babies. I can’t possibly not protect the unprotected.

Ashley Otah

Ashley Otah, 22, a 2020 graduate of USC, lives in Dallas.

There is an expectation given to you when you are young. You don’t have the luxury of being a kid who makes mistakes. There are always eyes watching and waiting and interjecting, and when you do falter there are heavy consequences your counterparts will not face. When you bring these to light you are penalized, ostracized, or ignored. You continue to do your best with what you have and just keep going. You want to enjoy life, but life continues to have hurdles and more hurdles and more hurdles.

When you’re growing up, you think you will go to school, get a good job. You follow this straight line. COVID pulled that rug from underneath us and that line isn’t there. There’s a heavy burden looming over a lot of us as we look for work.

Now since the [Floyd] video, my heart just aches. Every time we see violence like this, you have this hope that this will be the last time, that this will be the last name. And then it’s not.

I cannot go march because I’m immunocompromised. But there are other avenues to be helpful, to elevate and amplify the people around you. I try to combat statements that stigmatize mental health issues in our community, and I direct people to a site called Therapy for Black Girls and the Loveland Foundation, which aims to help black women and girls get free therapy sessions. I will most likely be seeing someone soon.

The fact that it took a video for the whole world to see someone begging to be seen, someone begging to be seen as a human being, for people to say they get it, is difficult. They might say they get it, but they haven’t lived it. I’m hopeful, though. We can help shape the future.


This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.