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School mental health ignores my Blackness

The racial identity of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color students (BIPOC) has been disregarded in school resources and conversations about mental health for far too long. It is time for education leaders to rethink their approach to student mental health so BIPOC student voices can be heard safely and authentically as a valued part of their school communities.


Mental health has become a buzzword in educational spaces. I, a rising sophomore in college, was a firsthand witness to this striking transformation through my time in high school. From “mindfulness” to “self-care,” these words conquered and dominated school counseling activities and resources. Here in Kansas City, my high school did it all – assemblies, presentations, peer-groups, everything. Despite their efforts, I could never connect to these initiatives.

Mental health at school never acknowledged me – my Blackness.

As a Black student in a predominantly white space, my racial identity was present and a large component of all my experiences within the school setting, both educationally and socially. Though my school was checking all the mental health support boxes, my experience existed outside of the boxes’ constraints.

There is a magnitude of racial trauma associated within educational spaces; it is both imperative and vital for schools to be spaces of nurturing and support for all students – including students of color. Though this has failed to be the norm historically, there is still, and always has been, opportunity for change. As schools near a post-COVID experience and deal with the aftermath of the national outcry for racial justice, they can enter and adopt a new stance on mental health that is inclusive.

I experience life and society through the lens of my Black identity. Without inclusion and acknowledgment of this complexity, I felt unseen and unheard.

Make space for my voice

I experience life and society through the lens of my Black identity. Without inclusion and acknowledgement of this complexity, I felt unseen and unheard. In high school, not only was I struggling to relate to my white peers, but I was also struggling to cope with the challenges and self-doubt I faced because of our cultural differences. On many occasions, I felt as if there was not space in my school for me. I feared that there wasn’t space for my voice.

My ability to speak and be heard held strong connections to self-esteem. When I felt unheard, my mental health was negatively affected. Throughout my high school education, I bargained with my Blackness. Showcasing only portions of myself and hiding the parts I felt were in danger, authenticity grew to be foreign. Mistakenly, I deemed it better to be the exceptional Black girl rather than the one they could stereotype. In a sense, I lost myself. My identity was not validated, it was contested. My self-esteem and confidence in who I am diminished as I transitioned into who I thought my school and society expected me to be.

Resulting from my experiences were years of depression and anxiety. I became disengaged in my learning and my attendance was extremely sporadic. Even then, I suffered in silence. I couldn’t explain what I was going through and the resources in place didn’t address my situation, either. Honestly, I doubted my school counselors would understand. After encountering a therapist that deemed my issues solely to “perfectionism,” I doubted that my school could even recognize the racial trauma I faced. Rather than coping, I ignored my pain and focused on survival.

Looking more broadly at education, I discovered that my experience was not solely my own. For my generation of students of color, the failure of inclusive mental health affects us all. The lack of racial identity inclusion in school mental health resources is an extension of the silencing of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) student voices. As a systematic plan, education, in its design, did not include students of color in its intent. Dr. Christopher Emdin argues that this exclusionary plan has yet to be redefined, so as BIPOC student population in schools grow, BIPOC students remain excluded from the system’s framework.

Decades after the Brown v. Board decision, a lack of inclusion and representation remains. Since 2015, BIPOC students have composed more than 50% of the public-school population yet remain underrepresented by teachers in classrooms. More than 80% of U.S. teachers are white. This lack of representation extends to the lack of advocates for BIPOC students. To put it plainly, we navigate a system that is not intended for us.

My [BIPOC] peers and I share an experience that doesn’t have to continue. We can break the cycle and rebuild our approaches to be better.

My peers and I share an experience that doesn’t have to continue. We can break the cycle and rebuild our approaches to be better. To truly create spaces and resources of equity we must start by committing ourselves to three priorities: make space for BIPOC mental health support, uplift BIPOC student voices, and acknowledge the impact of race.

1. Make space for BIPOC mental health support

This means taking the steps to move past the common approaches and recognizing the needs of all students. In adopting a new approach, schools must be intentional in their actions and self-aware of their current limitations. BIPOC students must emerge as priorities in mental health support considerations rather than afterthoughts.

Linden West Elementary School

Making space can take many forms: safe caucus spaces, inclusive resources, and trauma-informed care.

Linden West Elementary School in the North Kansas City School District represents the process and intentionality in making space for BIPOC mental health support with its TraumaSmart training. Linden West was awarded a Kauffman Foundation Individual Schools Grant to aid in implementing trauma-informed care practices within their school.

Demographically, Linden West is approximately 54% BIPOC students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Serving a significant BIPOC student population, its work in trauma-informed care highlights a strong framework for making space to better support the mental health of all students.

2. Uplift BIPOC student voices

Through this process, schools go beyond just seeing students to giving them the platform to speak. Listening to BIPOC students express themselves and their opinions is both the quickest and most effective ways to learn students’ needs and desires within the educational environment. Student voices should be central in BIPOC student mental health. In uplifting student voice, schools must welcome students to speak openly and have a voice in their school community.

North Kansas City School District

  • Hosted a student-led panel on racial healing in June 2020, called the Community Conversation, which featured student speakers as young as 10-years-old.

Examples of uplifting BIPOC student voices include establishing an open forum for communication, granting students a voice in their school’s hiring process, and supporting student-voiced initiatives. Amid the national protests that occurred last June, North Kansas City School District hosted and gave platform to students through their student-led panel on racial healing. The Community Conversation event featured students as young as 10-years-old vocalizing their perspectives and experiences within their own schools. Their voices were uplifted and highlighted as they spoke with an audience consisting of school board members and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.

3. See color, acknowledge the impact of race

A foundational component of supporting BIPOC student mental health is acknowledging and validating a student’s identity. Schools must see color. Though schools can place a large focus on unity and community, it is also equally important to acknowledge the individuality of students via their differences.

Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy

  • 75% teachers/staff of color is maintained in an effort to be representative of their students.
  • The intent to address the educational needs of communities historically harmed by segregation is emphasized.
  • Acknowledges and sees the impact race and diversity holds in educational spaces.

My Blackness is a part of me. It shapes who I am. The same can be said for other students of color. To see color in educational spaces is to make students feel seen and reflected within their environment. This can be achieved with lesson plans and curriculums that place history into its broader context, such as the resources made available by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in partnership with the 1619 Project. The project acknowledges the larger impacts of race in our past and present. It allows students to feel seen and reflected in the curriculum. As an institution, schools must teach history in its entirety. For U.S. schools, teaching U.S. history in its fullness means truthfully depicting the racist laws, policies, and practices grounding American systems. 

Helping students feel seen and reflected can also be accomplished with purposeful representation in school staff. The Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy provides a strong example of acknowledging the impact of race through its commitment to teacher and faculty representation. Serving students in fifth through seventh grades, the school takes on a unique approach with a feminist and antiracist mission. According to school social worker, Cristina Marquez, the school maintains a goal to staff 75% teachers/staff of color in an effort to be representative of their students. In the school’s vision and values, the intent to address the educational needs of the community historically harmed by segregation is emphasized. The school community acknowledges and sees the impact race and diversity holds in educational spaces.

Research shows us that having one Black teacher during third through fifth grades can reduce low-income Black students’ chances of dropping out of high school by 29%. Additionally, students who have two teachers of their same race have a 32% increased probability of enrolling in college. From my own experience, I can attest to the empowerment and validation gathered from being in a classroom with a BIPOC teacher. These experiences were essential and represent the times where I felt most connected to my classroom and learning. I believe teacher representation can leverage race’s impact in educational settings in a way that ignoring it never will.

Maleah Downton

Maleah Downton is an education student voice content planning intern in Public Affairs for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Downton is working toward degrees in psychology and educational students at Washington University in St. Louis and is a Questbridge Scholar. She is a content creator and designer for WashU’s COLOUR Magazine and a program leader for a campus YMCA tutoring program. Downton also teaches at a childcare center in Kansas City.

Downton loves to write and is passionate about working and engaging with students. Downton is also highly interested in and devoted to community activism and social justice initiatives.

Uncommon Voices columns bring new perspectives and opinions on topics related to the Kauffman Foundation’s work. If you have an idea for a column, please read the guidelines for contributors.